Midland Heart’s director of IT, Kathryn Downs, ORM’s founder and managing partner, Peter Gough, and Rackspace’s senior business development manager, Leon Blakely, explain how embracing new technologies could be a game changer for housing providers.
Midland Heart’s Kathryn Downs said, “The biggest challenges in the social housing sector are an increasing pressure to build affordable housing, a government mandate to reduce rents by one per cent year-on-year and responding to the Housing Green Paper, published after the Grenfell Tower fire.
“The first two of those mean that we have to become much more efficient, investing in building new homes rather than spending on central overheads, but Grenfell Tower put the whole sector under a spotlight and showed how it must pay more attention to tenants.
“However, this is a very exciting time; it’s rare that you find a sector undergoing transformation so readily and with such speed. Technology holds the key to addressing so many things around processes, efficiencies, rent reductions and giving tenants a voice.”
Rackspace’s Leon Blakely said, “There’s a genuine need to engage with tenants differently and you must enhance how services are delivered. Changes to benefit payments will give tenants more choice and control over their spending, so the easier you can make transactions and engagement, the greater your chances of success in this shifting environment.”
Doing better through digital
Peter Gough from ORM, a digital consultancy and Rackspace partner that helps housing providers improve through digital transformation, said, “You can maximise opportunities in the future by providing digital inclusivity. As an example from outside the housing sector, the IT revolution has led to some banks not only becoming more efficient, but also starting to think of customers as a valued and intrinsic part of their organisation.”
Blakely added, “Rackspace has worked with Metro Bank, which stands out from its contemporaries through its highly customer-driven approach. This includes being open seven days a week, and a new customer being able to open an account without booking an appointment. Naturally, the bank also gives customers all the self-service ‘bells and whistles’ that they’d expect.”
Self-service & streamlining processes
Gough said, “Self-service demand is perhaps the biggest change to address. Consider the volume of administrative paperwork – there are a lot of forms in social housing. Streamlining the process can save time and money, and provide a better audit trail.”
Downs said, “Tenants often want to talk in person and on the phone. Any digital transformation must be an addition; tenants must be able to serve themselves but not at the expense of choice. The technologies we use must facilitate what they need to do, but also how they want to achieve that.”
Emphasising the need for robust back-office technology, Gough said, “Front-end gloss isn’t enough; you must dig deep into organisational structures. How does the call centre interact, what does ‘understanding customer needs’ mean for housing providers, and how can that be enabled by technology?”
Moving on from legacy systems
Downs said, “Most housing providers battle with their legacy technologies, the result of having been tied to a small number of technology providers for a long time because housing management systems are quite bespoke. This has contributed to innovation being stifled in the sector.
“In the past, we’d approach the market with our requirements and we’d buy the technology that most closely-met requirements. We’re now doing things differently, by asking the market for ideas and taking the challenge to the suppliers, and through that procurement process receiving proposals for how we might address that challenge.”
Choosing the right partner
Downs said, “In terms of technology suppliers, we’re looking for a breadth of experience and creativity in markets beyond just social housing. The other consideration is to be flexible in your approach. We know we won’t get things right first time, all of the time, so there must be a willingness on both sides to try, learn and adapt.”
Gough concluded, “Digital transformation can’t be thought of as something that has a defined end-point or will stop at certain point. What we must have now is an ongoing phased approach, so technology partnerships and managed service models are vital to the transformation puzzle.”
Kathryn Downs is director of IT at Midland Heart. Peter Gough is the founder and managing partner of ORM. Leon Blakely is a senior business development manager for Rackspace.