Housing Technology interviewed Paul Tomlinson, managing director of HousingIT, the newly-launched housing system provider.
What is rationale behind the creation of HousingIT?
Having been involved in housing management systems since 1992, I’ve seen the market demands change from basic ‘raising the rent debit’ to integrated community facilities, such as ASB case monitoring and tracking housing advice, while systems became bigger and more ‘clunky’ as extra functionalities were bolted onto already-disparate database segments.
I first mooted Housing Lite, much as you mused in the ‘HMS-lite’ editorial in the last edition of Housing Technology, back in 1997 but we never quite got round to it. But now, a lot of things have come together to lower the cost of getting a new product to market. Network access and speed, and web 2.0 technologies such as Ajax and SOA, make browser-based systems more responsive to the user, while VoIP and ‘presence’, plus the raft of other facilities in the Microsoft Office System 2007, give a platform to deliver an intuitive system with broad-based functionality to help manage houses and tenants effectively.
What does HousingIT do that other vendors don’t?
We are developing a true housing line-of-business web application, accessible through a browser, accessible with suitable security from anywhere – office, home, internet café, even a tenant’s house.
By starting with a blank sheet of paper, we have advantages over existing suppliers as we can use lots of things that exist already. For example, before Exchange and Outlook came along, vendors had to write their own diary and calendar functions; we integrate with Microsoft’s using their APIs. As well as not wasting many man-years writing diaries, there are other spin-off benefits, such as having these diaries automatically on Windows Mobile devices, such as PDAs and smartphones, with just a little implementation effort from us. We are not writing proprietary document management, workflow, or task lists; these all exist in Microsoft products so we are integrating these seamlessly into our system.
For example, using Microsoft SharePoint gives us document management out of the box, but it also gives us many more things as standard, such as collaborative team working, intranet facilities and standard template business process applications including purchase order requisition tracking and approvals. We will use Microsoft’s PerformancePoint Server to develop ‘cubes’ of performance information, displayed as business intelligence KPIs.
Again, instead of layering a CRM solution over our housing solution as existing suppliers have done, we are embedding the customer contact processes and actions within our housing solution. Users will have a common interface across the system, from logging a repair request to asking housing advice to raising ASB issues. The system will be driven by housing processes developed from experience or from best practice guides from the CIH or the Housing Corporation.
Our mobile solutions are integral not integrated, and they can work disconnected when no network is available. One of the first mobile applications we are building is ‘client-service visits’, a snapshot of tenant and property data and related documents, so a housing offer can visit the client with all relevant information, capture information on the visit and synchronise with the central database later.
We have also recognised that IT costs and IT staff recruitment are often an issue for RSLs. Traditionally, systems have required an upfront capital cost, followed by annual maintenance charges and also an IT specialist and database administrator to look after the system. What vendors call significant new releases often cost more, so the cost of running an IT system can be both considerable and unpredictable. We are distributing HousingPoint using the SaaS (software as a service) model, which removes the upfront capital cost and the requirement for the RSL to provide its own IT support and server hardware. With SaaS, the RSL pays a monthly subscription charge – everything else is taken care of for them.
Microsoft is promoting the SaaS model and IDC predicts strong end-user demand for SaaS over the next four years, driven by a requirement to see clearly the relationship between the total cost of the software and the benefit that accrues to the customer.
How does HousingIT position itself against the larger, well-established housing management system vendors?
We offer a different approach – a new system delivered in a new way. Our system looks and behaves like the applications most people use at work and at home everyday – Outlook, Explorer, Web 2.0, etc. It is truly intuitive, and requires no IT support from the organisation, freeing up resources to fulfil the organisation’s main goals.
Why would RSLs not simply stick with the status quo?
Surveys show many dissatisfied users. SaaS cost of ownership means they could probably switch from a system they are dissatisfied with, even if they have only had it for two or three years, with no change to existing budgets. Many existing systems are not providing the required ‘community management’ functionality or efficiency gains, with no easy roadmap to ‘newer’ technologies such as CRM, mobile services, etc. Managing the customer, and remote and mobile working are key drivers in today’s housing management arena, and staff are looking for systems to support them – not just do half a job.
Do you have any customers? If not, what is your timescale for getting customers?
We do not have any customers as yet. We are targeting that the first customer use of HousingPoint will be in Q4 2008. Our Mobile and PeoplePoint – our implementation of Microsoft’s SharePoint with a housing bias – could be sooner, integrated with existing housing management systems through their APIs.
Who is your target market?
While there are no physical restrictions on the number of properties or number of users that the system can manage, we have designed the functionality to do the simple things very, very well, and have left out the complexities of some of the larger systems. So we believe that our current target market is RSLs with up to around 6000 properties under management, with no lower limit.
We are looking for development partners now – early adopters and dynamic organisations who know what they want, are looking for a leading-edge system and are willing to work with us to get it. Of course, there may be teething problems, but shaping a state-of-the-art system and being first will have its advantages, including additional help and support and, of course, a lower cost.