With the combination of social media, mobile, big data analytics and cloud (SMAC) gaining wider awareness as being possibly the next wave of technology, Housing Technology interviewed SMAC exponents from Caltech IT, Ciber and Clearview Systems about how SMAC could be used by housing providers.
What is SMAC?
Most housing providers have already adopted at least one or two of the SMAC technologies, most commonly mobile and, to a lesser extent, cloud and social media, with only a few instances of true big data analytics. In short, the theory behind SMAC is that while each technology is worthwhile in its own right, the real benefits in terms of operational processes, value for money, tenant engagement, customer services are so on are from where each of the four technologies enhances the others. Mark Hobart, Clearview Systems’ managing director, said, “SMAC offers the ability to combine new data sources such as social media feeds with traditional enterprise data to deliver new insights to improve business performance and customer services, while the mobility and cloud aspects are a potential means of delivery.” Phil Callaghan, managing director of Caltech IT, added, “Social media, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) is where each of these enables another to maximise its effect. SMAC is about the creation or transformation of processes as well as the technology that supports those processes.”
Extending existing services
The benefits of SMAC appear to be based around a ‘virtuous circle’ of more accurate analytical insight, leading to better decision-making, and from there to better services to tenants and performance improvements, very often from taking a holistic view of the individual existing implementations of social media, mobile, analytics and cloud. Paul Swannell, sales manager for social housing at Ciber, said, “SMAC should be considered as a set of complementary technologies. For example, the extension of social media to engage with tenants, suppliers and partners is likely to increase the volume of communications but at the same time, it will increase the volume and value of available data. Combining analytics in this scenario will help to distil information and insight from what could otherwise be the ‘noise’ of big data.” Caltech IT’s Callaghan said, “SMAC stacks provide a lot of power and, in short, can make interactions leaner, faster, smarter and clearer. For example, for a housing providers that is participating in social networking, this can offer valuable insight into a large data set, to find out what excites and drives residents. By including social CRM, housing providers can work out how to communicate better with their tenants. “Equally, giving housing officers and maintenance staff mobile tools extends their connection to the office; by allowing a housing officer to get a full picture of a particular resident before visiting, such as rent arrears, outstanding maintenance, reported ASBs or other factors, and align this with social media, you will have a full picture of every resident so you can exceed their expectations.” An alternative view about extending housing providers’ existing implementations of the SMAC technologies was expressed by Clearview Systems’ Hobart who said, “On its own, it doesn’t extend existing services. It needs a concerted effort to want to leverage social media and other data to drive performance improvement. Once that happens, analytics will rapidly come to the fore. Mobile and cloud are inevitably involved, but relevant data and analysis are the most important parts.”
As mentioned above, the main reasons for adopting a SMAC strategy are to gain a better understanding of and communication with tenants, enable more efficient working practices and cost reductions (such as through more tenant self-service, less administrative work or time spent travelling). Ciber’s Swannell said, “First, SMAC will enable housing providers to glean better insights into their tenants and in doing so shape the services they offer. Perhaps more pressing in light of Welfare Reform, predictive analytics has the potential to highlight tenants at greatest risk, allowing scarce resources to be focused where most needed. “Secondly, SMAC is a key enabler of self-service and, as long as effective back-office integration is in place, this will deliver the twin benefits of lower cost-to-serve and increased tenant satisfaction. And thirdly, mobile and cloud support internal efficiencies, giving flexible access to systems and data, anywhere, anytime. This reduces the need for travel, cuts down data re-keying, and means a better job can be done in customer-facing situations.” Hobart said, “I think the relevance of social media and big data to the housing sector has not yet been fully established. Innovation in service delivery, engagement and bi-directional communications with tenants will drive the agenda here and at some stage the ‘relevance link’ to the sector will be made and ‘Eureka’, a new breed of technology will be required to make sense of it all.”
The main hurdle to the adoption of a SMAC strategy seems to be not only dealing the vast amounts of data likely to be generated by SMAC, but also establishing which data is important and which is just ‘noise’. Callaghan from Caltech IT said, “There is a vast amount of data out there, hence the ‘big data’ explosion of 2013. To benefit from the data, housing providers will need to find the right user friendly tools to access and understand it, resulting in the ability to exploit the data to spot trends and opportunities.” Ciber’s Swannell said, “Given the typical heterogeneous application landscape of most housing providers, integration is certainly going to be a hot topic; how do you build a roadmap for a SMAC architecture when a dozen or more core business applications have no common data structures and may evolve in varied ways? Furthermore, from a customer interaction perspective, how do you ensure your social and mobile ‘front-ends’ do not generate a manual administrative headache in isolated back-end processes?”
Changing role of the CIO
The adoption of a SMAC strategy and its effect on the role of a housing provider’s CIO or head of IT can be seen in two ways. From one perspective, it moves the IT function much closer to the heart of the organisation, while from another perspective, it’s merely the logical continuation of what the IT department is likely to be already doing. Swannell said, “One can apply hindsight to the fates of Blockbuster, Kodak, HMV and Borders, all of which were high-profile victims of changes in technology, but in five years’ time, I suspect CIOs will ask each other, did you see SMAC coming?”
As with standalone cloud services, security concerns around SMAC are commonplace, particularly as SMAC strategies are likely to expose more data externally, but most enterprise-class cloud services are in reality more secure than on-premise servers. Ciber’s Swannell said, “External-facing systems, consumed on a wider range of devices and hosted on cloud-based platforms, will increasingly require careful consideration by IT. While it is critical that these solutions are secured properly, it is also vital that adoption is not hampered by outdated policies or even prejudice. “Enterprise-grade cloud applications and platforms can sometimes be dismissed out-of-hand due to IT policies, when in reality they can offer greater levels of security and resilience when compared to on-premise systems running on outdated infrastructure.” Clearview Systems’ Hobart said, “All of the current SMAC technologies have their own security models which should fit well with traditional IT infrastructures. I think the biggest issue will be not so much security but the marshalling and governance of data. The more data you have, the greater the risk of exposing it by mistake.”
Hybrid IT infrastructures and applications
Swannell from Ciber concluded, “SMAC shouldn’t be seen as a bolt-on to existing applications and infrastructure; the hybrid platforms and infrastructure of today will continue to evolve and it is the role of IT and service providers to ensure convergence with SMAC, rather than changes in opposing directions. “In terms of applications, as well as an accelerating move to the cloud, mobility will soon become a given. Forward-thinking vendors are already moving away from mobile ‘app’ versions of their applications; instead creating user interfaces common to all devices, supporting seamless device-sensitive experiences across PCs, tablets, and smartphones.” Housing Technology would like to thank Phil Callaghan (Caltech IT), Paul Swannell (Ciber UK) and Mark Hobart (Clearview Systems) for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.