Many housing providers are at an experimental stage of their digital transformations, dipping a toe in the water, often in response to a business or regulatory imperative such as monitoring damp in properties or using chatbots for triaging customer interactions.
Digitising existing services and processes to enable better customer service, increase efficiency or ensure that compliance activities are done correctly is definitely valuable and can build confidence that ‘digital’ is achievable, but these should be considered as tactical rather than strategic considerations.
Being strategic considers the value transformation will deliver, in that digital technology de-couples resource use from front-line delivery; self-service and back-end automation break the relationship between increasing assets and increasing staff costs.
It should also mean there’s a clear definition of what the organisation means by digital transformation, including what that transformation will achieve, what could/should be in scope, what technology and staffing capabilities are needed to deliver the strategy.
Several key drivers and challenges are pushing organisations to adopt digital transformation strategies. These drivers and challenges are rooted in the need for greater service quality, transparency, efficiency and sustainability, all to be delivered against an uncertain funding and financial situation.
Drivers for change
- Customer-driven expectations: customers are demanding increased transparency, accountability and faster responses from housing providers.
- Decarbonisation: housing providers are facing mounting pressure to decarbonise not only their assets and estates but also their overall business operations.
- Evolving governance and legislation: the sector is experiencing significant changes in governance and legislation.
- Data-driven decisions: boards are increasingly seeking real-time, or near real-time, data instead of relying on traditional quarterly reports.
- Customer voice: integrating customers’ voices into decision-making is a recurring theme.
Capability to deliver
A great deal has been written recently on digital transformation: why you must do it; what it means; how to make it happen; and how not to fail.
From our experience, success will be determined more than anything by having myriad linked capabilities in place to deliver:
- Change management: disruptions in the digital environment are constant and varied, and there are multiple dimensions of change that need to be addressed, such as culture, technology, business models, processes and capabilities. Having a robust change management process helps employees embrace and adapt to new digital technologies and processes and flourish in an environment of constant disruption.
- Customer-centric approach: this puts customers at the centre of design thinking and development of products, processes and decisions.
- Collaboration: this is necessary to break down silos and enable the free flow of information and ideas. However, this is much more than just informing or sharing; it is deliberate and cooperative design across teams, functions, business units and beyond, allowing them to carry out common and/or complementary goals.
Challenges and solutions
Our experience on the ground shows that, notwithstanding the capability demands mentioned above, the greatest difficulties faced by housing providers when embarking on such transformations are due to:
- Misunderstanding transformation progress: believing they’ve finished their journey when they’ve only taken the foundational steps. Organisations need to accurately map their digital transformation journey, focus on RoI as well as customer experience, and recognise that the journey is ongoing.
- Budget-centric approach: organisations view digital transformation as a cost centre, leading to cost-effective but shortsighted solutions.
- Disconnect between business strategy and digital: a failure to align the digital strategy with broader business objectives, including having a separate data strategy. Often there’s little understanding of the strategic value of technology within leadership teams or understanding of the importance of data exploitation within the digital strategy, focusing only on data hygiene and governance.
- Lack of in-house technical skills: neglecting staff training and development to support transformation and cultural change. Investment in technical skills and formalised training of staff is needed to support a culture of innovation and technological literacy. Democratising technology expertise through the empowerment of individuals from different departments also helps drive successful transformation.
- Cultural shift: culture isn’t a side project, it’s the very essence of digital transformation. A culture of innovation, adaptability and continuous learning is a catalyst for success. It’s the collective belief that change is an opportunity, not a threat.
Real-world reflections – Raven Housing Trust
Raven Housing Trust’s transformation journey has been a wide-ranging undertaking, involving significant business, technology and cultural changes, moving from outdated systems and processes to a new core system, with an emphasis on automation, data integration and improved customer service.
Julia Mixter, director of business transformation, Raven Housing Trust, said, “Our journey demonstrates that without a culture that fosters digital dexterity (the ability of employees to fully exploit new tools), use of technology will be ineffective in delivering the business outcomes that are being pursued.”
Raven recognised the vital importance of data within its transformation journey, especially data quality, integration and governance to ensure consistency across the organisation. This data-focused approach contributed to significant financial benefits, including cost savings and increased efficiency through automation and streamlined processes.
The key learnings from Raven Housing’s journey:
- Business transformation: an in-depth, current-state analysis to identify issues related to data, integration, workarounds and spreadsheets that enabled a transformation strategy focused on accelerating outcomes, with clarity that ‘transformation’ would be an ongoing process of continuous improvement.
- Technology transformation: the transition to Microsoft Dynamics for housing, CRM and field service to replace multiple systems, overlaid with PowerBI for data analysis, automation and improved workflows to reduce manual work and improve efficiency.
- Cultural transformation: Raven Housing embraced the necessary cultural shift with training and support as well as partnering with external experts to help teams adapt to the new systems.
- Customer-first approach: the first transformation objective was to focus on enhancing customer services, with the simplicity and transparency of the integrated system resulting in higher staff productivity and better customer service.
- Data transformation: a recognition of the importance of data to systems working together by having a ‘golden source’ of consistent information available across teams, alongside data governance and staff training.
- Financial benefits: significant initial benefits accrued from productivity gains due to automation, such as call handling and automated invoicing.
It’s vital to understand that digital transformation isn’t a programme with a start and end. It’s an on-going, top-down and bottom-up journey. It isn’t about adoption of a new technology or system but rather organising, operating and behaving effectively in a new world of work.
Digital transformation is a fundamental business change; it requires leadership and vision, a clear understanding of why it’s being done and the benefits to be gained. It should start small, then grow in scope and impact. Understanding the size and scale of the change is essential.
The inescapable truth is that success (or otherwise) is driven by capability; the capability of the people and, more broadly the organisation, to envision, embrace and exploit new ways of working to deliver better outcomes for customers, staff and the organisation itself.
This article was co-authored by Julia Mixter, director of business transformation at Raven Housing Trust, Kate Doodson, joint CEO of Cosmic, and Neville Brown, managing director of Itica.