Why, given that paperwork is so expensive and inefficient, budgets and consequently services are being cut, and the technology to address this so clearly exists, are the majority of housing processes still reliant on pen and paper?
Before explaining the reasons, I would like to provide a brief ‘tale of the possible’.
At this year’s Housing Technology conference in February, I met Chris Smith, operations director at Adactus Housing, who was looking around the various exhibitors, making sure he understood what was available.
Then at the beginning of April, he contacted us saying that Adactus was working on a requirement to provide mobile working to its supported housing and sheltered housing services, involving a large number of Health and Safety inspections plus scheduled checks and case management on residents and people receiving support. We submitted a bid response and on 1st May we gave an interview and presentation to Adactus.
A number of reference calls and 10 days later, Chris contacted us to say they were going to go ahead with us. Another week of sorting out contracts followed and on 22nd May we met the teams for the first time for a kickoff workshop. 10 working days later, the first sheltered scheme began using the new solution and has been paperless ever since. The project team still has lots to do to roll this out to the whole service, but benefits are already being realised and the system is live.
So, back to why the above is (unfortunately) not the norm.
In many housing organisations, there is a general acceptance that things take a long time, decisions need to go through lengthy processes, each step is built around a meeting and finding diary and meeting room time just builds weeks of delay at each step.
This is changing as organisations are under pressure to deliver savings, the challenge now is to change the way people think about IT projects. Using modern cloud services means systems can be implemented quickly and incrementally, you can start delivering savings from day one, and because there is no upfront cost, this means it must be possible to think about business case justifications differently.
The Adactus example shows what can be achieved in a progressive, ‘get things done’ corporate culture.
Weak business case
Justifying spending in the current economy means the investment needs to generate savings. Housing is a people business, and savings mean fewer people; trying to write a business case that skirts around this issue means the project will flounder. The same number of people can’t do the same work ‘more efficiently’; more efficiently means fewer people are needed.
Service improvement is always an objective of any new technology but spending money on a new system needs to produce both service improvements and savings.
“Any new solution must fully integrate with our housing management system.”
This is almost never challenged, beyond rent and repairs, despite only a tiny percentage of the benefits of a new system being derived from integration. The sector continues to allow the housing system suppliers to get away with not providing open interfaces to their products so this is a potential project-killer every time. Each housing supplier has a partner mobile platform that apparently does everything and there is a general acceptance that if you want an integrated solution then you have to go with that system. Everyone is still using paper everywhere, so something is not quite right.
Misunderstanding what ‘mobile working’ means
Mobile working is understood as linking some new mobile technology to your existing housing systems so that your staff can access and update information while out and about.
This is a very flawed understanding and one of the main reasons so few processes have been successfully mobilised. Outside repairs and rents, virtually everything that takes place in housing is case management. By this I mean you can describe virtually everything you do as follows:
- Identify some sort of need that the customer has;
- Record this need and see what you can do to help;
- Agree an action plan to resolve or improve the situation;
- Monitor whether these actions are being completed or are successful;
- Record the outcomes;
- Report on what has been achieved over time.
When you get down to the detail, you realise that the core housing systems don’t support this process (a general ‘notes’ field aside). There is a large element of the work and information that is held informally, which just means on spreadsheets, in diaries and in peoples’ heads. So if you have a mobile platform that just lets you design forms to exchange information with existing systems, you have no way to cater for all the currently informal processes and data.
As well as case management, any mobile working project will need to address how the work is planned and scheduled, with scheduling being a much looser concept than in housing repairs where the whole day is explicitly sequenced.
To succeed, you therefore need a solution that can be moulded to hold all your information, lets staff access and update that information anywhere whether on an unconnected mobile device or at their desktop, provides the case management tools that are at the heart of most housing processes and also provides the work-planning component. This new platform can then be linked to your current systems as required to deliver an integrated solution.
In summary, we have all largely gone mobile in our private lives. The technology we use to do this is not complicated to learn, is very powerful and has made a huge difference to the way we manage our personal data. The key to all of this is cloud services – these allow you to concentrate on the processes and not the technology, which just works and can be accessed from anywhere. It is obvious that at some point this is how all software will be delivered, and if you are ready now, we would love to hear from you.
Nick Jeffreys is business development director at Cloud Dialogs.