Housing Technology interviewed IT experts from 1st Touch, Civica, Horton Housing Association, New Charter Group and Town & Country Housing Group about how housing providers can use technology to automate some of their key processes, for both business improvements and cost-savings as well as to help tenants.
Where to start?
Rather than considering the details of how to automate specific processes, this article covers how housing providers can streamline their general operations by using technology to automate many repetitive (and often paper-based) processes. As with most activities, the 80/20 rule very much applies; perhaps 80 per cent of housing providers’ operations lend themselves to cost-effective automation, but the remaining 20 per cent will either be too expensive, complicated or risky to automate.
As with Sam Young, director of business transformation at New Charter Group, said, “Like all technology projects, the easiest things to automate are repetitive tasks, where rules or logic prevail and the answer is always black and white; put simply, things that don’t need a human touch. However, it’s very easy to simply automate bad processes; the starting point always needs to be whether the process is necessary, whether it is efficient and, importantly, whether the tenant is the focus.
“A less obvious thing to automate is business intelligence for more of a ‘big data’ picture. New Charter has now automated our management information to support service delivery in a vastly reduced timescale compared with manual processes, we can automate the link with other external data such as crime or loan-shark data to help us make decisions on targeting resources and interventions, and we can automatically link together varying data types to help us plan our medium- and long-term service needs.”
Civica’s managing director for housing and asset management, Jeff Hewitt, said, “The easiest areas to automate are those that are possibly the least automated in the first place, such as arrears collections. However, while a lot of IT solutions allow automation, there is often a reticence to fully automate services where there are legal implications if any mistakes are made. For systems to become truly automated, housing providers need solutions that are robust enough for companies to feel secure about automatically initiating the next steps of a recovery process, for example.”
Robert Dent, CEO of 1st Touch, added, “One of the most testing aspects of process automation is mapping the automation criteria clearly at the beginning, particularly if too many people are involved in the process. Quite simply, this ‘too many cooks’ scenario is likely to mean that too many conflicting opinions are in play, resulting in delays and project slippage. Of course, one can set objectives for what the IT solution needs to deliver in terms of efficiency, productivity and/or service improvements and how these objectives are defined and measured, but in the housing sector, there may be other criteria to consider, such as tenant satisfaction or whether the solution will meet value-for-money targets.
“Another potential hazard to bear in mind is staff morale. If the introduction of automated processes is handled badly, many staff might immediately think that their jobs are threatened, whereas in reality it normally means simply reallocating existing staff to other parts of the business.”
Measuring the savings
In most instances, process automation using IT is all about a combination of productivity gains and cost savings. As a consequence, the preparations and efforts needed to do so make it relatively easy to measure the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenarios and the contingent benefits.
Martin Nowak, a software project manager at Horton Housing Association, said, “The main cost savings of process automation via IT are linked to time-consuming tasks as well as any paper-based activities. Reducing the time it takes to carry out a particular task is a key factor, such as being able to automatically import housing benefit entitlements in an electronic format into a housing management system instead of manually inputting the details. Also, having a direct interface between different systems brings significant cost savings; instead of re-keying the same information twice, users can put it in once and bring the information across to the other systems via the interfaces.”
Jamie Barker, a project manager at Town & Country Housing Group, which has recent gone live with a CRM system from Optevia, said, “Aside from the obvious benefits of reducing the need for manual interactions, reducing data duplication is a huge area for cost savings. While there’s currently a lot of focus on data duplication in the context of mobile working, there is still massive potential to reduce duplication in the back office by centralising data and then using CRM to automate many of your processes. Once data is digitised and centralised, it opens up much more scope for process automation.
“In terms of measuring the time and cost savings, you can do ‘time and motion’ studies to see how long it takes to complete a manual process compared to an automated one, plus you can look at how often you are capturing the same information and calculate the cost implications of doing so. For example, ‘date of birth’ is a classic one; despite it never changing, how often do you ask tenants for their date of birth?”
Civica’s Hewitt added, “The main cost savings come from efficiencies in people time. If you can speed up decision making and the escalation of cases, work will be passed around an organisation much faster. This will result in faster responses to tenants, a reduction in the number of complaints and a better tenant service overall. The measurement aspect is simple; it’s how long it takes to vet an arrears process, for example; if you can reduce this, then you can make big savings in time spent and costs.”
Automating housing providers’ existing processes often deliver benefits beyond the strictly empirical measures of ‘how much?’ or ‘how long?’ and extend into wider areas of housing providers’ operations.
1st Touch’s Dent said, “For tenants, self-service apps allow them to instantly transact with their housing provider without needing to wait for a phone to be answered or an email response. And for field-based workers, process automation and mobile working mean that they can not only carry out more visits per day but also complete more activities while actually with tenants without the need for interaction with other staff members.
“Whether it’s tenant satisfaction or staff productivity, these can be measured by clearly defining the current manual process and collating data that measures the time, effort and cost of performing any given function. This can then be benchmarked against automated processes and the speed at which those processes can complete the same tasks. The measurements should also take into account any assets that may be saved through those automated tasks, such as closing satellite offices because staff can spend more time in the field and no longer need a local office to update information or locate any paper files needed for field visits.”
New Charter’s Young said, “Sometimes the benefits are surprising and ones we didn’t anticipate. For example, when we automated the processes around our repairs service, we introduced diagrammatic interfaces that allowed us to model a house and precisely pinpoint the repair on these pictures. In our customer service hubs, these interfaces also mean that when tenants come in, they can point to the problem on the pictures, overcoming any language or knowledge barriers, which in turn improves our rates for ‘first-time fixes’, repairs get completed faster, and helps maintain the overall standard of our properties.”
Helping your tenants
Using IT to automate business processes shouldn’t be confined to well-established internal processes, such as chasing arrears or processing tenancy agreement. It should be expanded to include tenants and external agencies, such as contractors, in the form of an extended supply chain, linked together using a single set of up-to-date and accurate data.
Civica’s Hewitt said, “The speed and accuracy of response to tenants is crucial. If you’re a tenant, you want your housing manager to always have access to the most up-to-date information on your account but tenants are often frustrated by the time it takes to manually process cases. If we look at the way we bank, customers expect a real-time view of their transaction history and balance every time they log into their online account or visit a branch, so why should tenants expect anything less from their housing provider?
“For example, our Housing Cx solution offers the full capability of a powerful housing management system on all devices, including laptops, tablets and mobiles, so the most up-to-date information can be accessed and updated on site visits. This reduces bottlenecks and eliminates errors, often caused by problems with synchronising or re-keying data.”
New Charter’s Young said, “Process automation improves the speed and accuracy of our services and helps ensure we get it right first time. Automation also means you can open up your processes for tenants to use directly, at any time and using their preferred channel. However, one potential pitfall is that, from a tenant’s point of view, it is important that the automation allows them to do the thing they want to, rather than just following the housing provider’s own internal processes.”
Town & Country Housing’s Barker added, “Process automation enables a consistent approach to the delivery of housing providers’ services. By automating processes, it allows us to expose those processes from solutions such as Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2015 to mobile working and self-service. With mobile working, it means you start, work on and complete processes when required and don’t have to wait until you are next in the office.
“And by exposing processes to self-service, tenants can interact with us at a time convenient to them and start a process without needing to speak to us directly. The progress of those processes can then be tracked by tenants within the self-service environment, reducing the need for them to call us for a progress update. Automation also enables enhanced collaboration for cross-cutting processes by routing tasks to the right people at the right time.”
Direct automation vs. business-led automation
Some processes are suitable for what might be termed ‘direct automation’, where the process has no human involvement at all, such as the delivery of regular, standardised reports to the board on the state of a housing provider’s overall operational position. For other processes, the role of the IT department is to give end-users the tools they need to create their own bespoke automated processes without the need for the constant involvement of the IT department.
1st Touch’s Dent said, “It’s important to start with the result or output you are looking for and let that influence the methods used to automate tasks. For example, many housing providers think that because they know about the business processes, using a tool to map these and design the automated process might appear to be an attractive proposition. However, this is offset by the complications that arise within housing, where there are workflows and automated tasks that interact across a number of applications and databases.”
Horton Housing’s Nowak said, “It’s useful to have some processes automated as standard, without any user intervention, such as weekly reports, because it delivers consistency across the board and it’s easier to control by the IT department. On the other hand, giving users a platform to create and produce their own reports allows them to be independent and less reliant on IT.”
Town & Country Housing’s Barker said, “There will always be a need for IT to directly support some process automation due to complexities such as coding and integration, but this requirement is diminishing with solutions such as Dynamics CRM. Business analysts are now empowered to develop business processes through configuration tools without the need to code. This is a great leap forward that opens up a massive opportunity to build real agility into process design and automation. Furthermore, processes developed or co-developed by the business will see greater ownership by the business rather than seeing them as ‘just another IT project’.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Robert Dent (1st Touch), Jeff Hewitt (Civica), Martin Nowak (Horton Housing Association), Sam Young (New Charter Group) and Jamie Barker (Town & Country Housing Group) for their expertise and editorial contributions to this article.