Reading the last issue of Housing Technology, a few items caught my attention: Orbit with its timeline; Futures Housing with its tenant engagement apps; along with the articles with ‘digital’ in the headline. Those articles made me think of what ‘wonder pills’ the IT industry has prescribed, and what ‘lotions & potions’ the software providers have developed over my personal timeline in IT, and in particular, in the social housing sector.
I’ve worked with the full spectrum of IT hardware: mainframes, minis, PCs, laptops, and tablets. In 1972, I took my first IT role in the construction industry, working for both end-user organisations and IT suppliers, until 1994 when I took my first IT role in housing.
The late 60s and early 70s saw the first computers being employed and in 1972 I worked with my first visual display unit. Through the 80s and early 90s, I moved from mainframe to mini, from manufacturer-specific operating systems to Unix, to PCs just starting to run Word and Excel, and dedicated data links.
In 1994 I took a role at Thamesmead with a brief to procure and implement a new housing management system. At that time, Thamesmead had a ‘rent ledger’ that dealt solely with raising the debit and posting cash, but all other processes were manual. By 1996, the system was live for all modules, and I remember reviewing the data that was now available on the system to help with strategy decisions. You could see “what is the most common repair call?”, “which is the preferred method of payment?”, “what is the profile of our tenants?” and so on. The only problem was that there was no reporting vehicle.
Since then, my subsequent consultative roles for some 20 housing providers have included a mixture of application support, business analytics, project management, system procurement and data migration. These have allowed me to see how the social housing sector has embraced the use of IT, and, more importantly, what the housing-specific software suppliers have put on the table.
- Finance systems have been around since the 1980s, housing management systems surfaced in the early 1990s and asset management systems popped up in the 2000s. Integration between these systems has been adequate but improved with the use of web-services and proprietary interface engines.
- The housing management systems were originally designed to cover the scope of a housing provider’s main departments – repairs, rents and lettings. This coverage has extended to include CRM, service charges, ASB, complaints, homelessness and choice-based lettings, but the extensions have often been grafted onto the system, almost as stand-alone systems.
- A number of the larger housing providers would like to escape the stranglehold of the all-encompassing HMS by going ‘best of breed’, but the problem is the big one in the middle – rents.
- The housing sector is served by a small number of software providers alongside a growing number of peripheral software houses offering ‘bolt-ons’. However, the mainstream systems still only offer much the same functionality as 20 years ago.
- Mobile technology has greatly improved the repairs process but why do repair complaints continue to account for a high percentage of all complaint statistics?
- The housing sector has bent over backwards to accommodate tenants (in the IT sense) with choice based-lettings, multiple payment methods, tenant portals, complaint systems, CRM, tenant tracker systems, and online surveys but tenant satisfaction levels remain under target.
Social housing has only embraced IT for the past 25 years. While the wider IT industry has allowed for the enhancement of IT in those years, the mainstream housing software products have not advanced at the same rate. New systems, please!
Norman Vickery is a director of Windfall Consultancy.