Housing Technology asked experts in housing management systems (HMS) from Civica, Northgate Public Services and Shaw Consulting about the role of HMS in today’s IT and business operations and what to look for when selecting and implementing a new HMS.
The latest HMS
Commenting on the difference between today’s latest HMS compared with many housing providers’ existing HMS, Civica’s director, Mark Holdsworth, said, “Previously, the biggest step change for HMS was moving from ‘green screen’ to Windows. Today, the change from Windows to fully web-based systems is just as revolutionary.
“Having a web-based system allows staff to access and work on their business systems just as they do with apps in their everyday lives – on any device, anywhere, anytime. It also includes all the modern capabilities that web-based apps deliver, such as cameras, portals, mapping, e-forms, EDM, meaning that housing providers no longer need costly separate applications. It also allows for easy deployment into the public cloud, such as Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, which can dramatically cut the cost of deploying and managing IT systems.”
Shaw Consulting’s managing director, Chris Shaw, said, “Many of the existing HMS that housing providers are using were not designed to work on a mobile device and require a local installation of the application, either on the PC or a remote desktop. Most organisations deploy a remote desktop such as Citrix, which then adds additional cost and maintenance; newer HMS have a responsive design which auto-scales across any device.
“Existing HMS tend to be specialist in nature, work in isolation of each other and duplicate a lot of data, such as tenant details, property information and warning flags. Organisations have tried to bridge this gap by integrating these applications, although the degree of success is very dependent on the options for integration offered by each supplier and the housing provider’s own in-house capabilities. Some of the newer HMS have better options for integration, such as the use of APIs for web services, but these still tend to be closed and rarely come as standard. We therefore don’t believe that any of the current HMS have been truly built to be provided as a software-as-a-service solution.”
Is your HMS really necessary?
With the influx of ‘generic’ ERP systems into the housing sector, do housing providers really need a dedicated HMS instead of, say, an ERP system or commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS)?
Northgate Public Services’ director of housing solutions, Trevor Hampton, said, “Yes, an HMS is definitely necessary. A dedicated HMS offers more information about a tenant or property through embedded data, which generic ERPs can’t provide without expensive and complex integration.
“Housing providers were tempted at first by the promise of easy navigation and the latest integration tools within ERP systems. But ERP had a mountain to climb in terms of ensuring the technology could adapt to the very specific functions and processes needed for housing. This is no longer an issue because HMS quickly caught up on the technology and now the sector is benefiting from the latest off-the-shelf tools which address the housing sector’s specific needs.”
Chris Shaw said, “This is a question that we’ve been asked a lot recently. The answer depends on the size of the housing provider, its IT team’s capabilities, the range of services it provides, how many of those services are outsourced and the organisation’s approach to risk. For large housing providers delivering a wide range of services, ERP offers the opportunity to consolidate multiple applications and their associated data into a single system, while improving the visibility of real-time information to staff across the business in a personalised format, such as a dashboard tailored to their role, as well as simplifying the introduction of technologies such as AI and machine learning.
“However, we believe that for smaller housing providers, a modern, dedicated HMS will meet 90 per cent of their needs. The chosen HMS should enable the business to both consolidate many of their existing applications and integrate the others to ensure they work together effectively.”
Extending existing HMS functionality
When considering the idea of why housing providers can’t just keep their existing HMS and then add a web services or presentation layer around it, Civica’s Holdsworth said, “They could do that, but that removes the opportunities that cloud-based software can deliver, such as creating a single view of data, integrating customer portals with chatbots or simply delivering services using mobile. Fully web-based systems also allow business logic, such as .Net web services being contained in the application to be deployed via the web and integrated with other software.
“Old technology wrapped in a web layer doesn’t allow that approach. There is a purity of design in cloud-based software; the cost of ownership is reduced compared to those with a presentation layer, where multiple technologies need to be managed and lots of bolt-on services maintained.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “They can add a web services layer because most HMS suppliers are providing more open integration paths. However, housing providers need to assess their skills and budget to develop this integration; for larger providers, this may well be the better option but using the existing HMS’ web services will avoid the technical integration and is a lower cost option.”
Avoiding risk, disruption and expense
Given that the implementation of a new HMS is a significant risk, disruption and expense, what are key factors in its selection and procurement? Shaw Consulting’s managing director said, “The selection process must look beyond a simple technology comparison and consider how the full enterprise architecture of the proposed solution fits with the organisation’s wider strategic aims and objectives as well as its people. Given the level of investment required, the final choice should be used to transform the way the business operates, not just to replace an existing system with a slightly more modern one.
“It’s also vital that the selection process properly considers ‘softer’ challenges such as project management, the transformation of the organisation’s culture and the implementation approach. Importantly, never forget that your staff will have a major influence on the success or failure of the new HMS.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “It’s important to look at whether the system you have today will be able to accommodate new technologies such as AI and IoT; these technologies will be essential to understand the challenges facing your tenants and ultimately improve your services. For example, housing providers currently rely on planned maintenance programmes to ensure properties are in good condition, and when problems arise, it is up to tenants to highlight if a repair needs to be carried out. In contrast, AI and IoT devices will be able to predict when a boiler is likely to fail, how long a household appliance will last, and if a house is at risk of becoming damp.
“Ultimately, HMS offer very different levels of capability and it’s important to understand what you are getting. Question whether the system is open, is it using the latest technology and crucially, does the vendor have the technical vision to develop a platform to meet the housing needs of the future?”
Pitfalls to avoid
Civica’s Holdsworth said, “The biggest pitfall is housing providers trying to just implement a newer version of their existing systems. They must take the time to fully explore all the new capabilities which a new HMS can bring. Modern systems also allow users to hold much greater and richer data, and the effort spent gathering this data (preferably before the implementation begins) will pay huge dividends later.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “One of the biggest hazards can be losing sight of the end goal. Each housing provider has its own set of challenges that it is trying to address so it’s imperative when implementing a new HMS that the team focuses on those specific priorities. However, take the time to ‘co-create’ your new HMS with customers, business users and technology specialists in order to develop a system that works for everyone.”
Taking the lead from your HMS
Given the central role played by an HMS in most housing providers’ operations, to what extent does an HMS dictate the rest of a housing provider’s strategy/decisions regarding its other business applications?
Civica’s Holdsworth said, “As a system which is core for business operation and data, it has a big impact. It will dictate what can be delivered within the software and what additional requirements are needed to integrate with. For example, if the HMS can be delivered from the cloud and is inherently mobile then this will be fundamental to the housing provider’s strategy for hosting and agile working. Integration is also vital; if the HMS can readily integrate with Microsoft Office 365 and SharePoint then this can fundamentally change the way an organisation delivers productivity and document management capabilities.”
Northgate Public Services’ Hampton said, “The HMS should have a huge influence on the direction a housing provider takes with its other business applications. It’s important to look at whether your HMS can offer any additional services you need to avoid the unnecessary expense of add-on apps and systems. Integration is expensive and can result in data management and processing issues which can weaken the user experience. So, if you do need further capabilities, check whether your HMS can integrate with them up front.”
Looking to the future of HMS, Shaw Consulting’s Shaw said, “Improved self-service and mobile/agile working for staff is key, as is how your HMS can work with the latest technologies. It will need to integrate with ‘virtual assistants’ to provide 24/7 service operations, make greater use of machine learning and robotic process automation (RPA), adopt AI for front-line service operations and improve data visualisation including augmented analytics.”
Northgate’s Hampton said, “Without doubt, we will see HMS suppliers making the most of AI so that they can better triage tenant and property issues. In the future, HMS will be able to fully harness the latest automation technologies to provide housing providers’ staff with a complete picture of each tenant and property, making it easier and faster to address the root cause of complex customer issues, ultimately enabling housing providers to achieve the best outcomes for their tenants.”
Housing Technology would like to thank Mark Holdsworth (Civica), Trevor Hampton (Northgate Public Services) and Chris Shaw (Shaw Consulting) for their editorial contributions to this article.