Implementing a new housing management system can be a challenge, even for the best prepared housing provider. Northgate Public Services’ housing director, Roger Birkinshaw, explores some of the common pitfalls and offers his tips for a trouble-free implementation.
A new IT system is a major investment for any housing provider, and the ultimate goal is to get a system that meets your needs and can take your organisation into the future. It’s important to get it right, so the stakes are high.
Implementing a new system can be a complex undertaking, involving large numbers of people, painstaking detail and extensive planning. So how can you overcome any issues that arise along the way and achieve a smooth implementation from start to finish?
1. Make a good start
A key priority for any implementation is to establish a positive working dialogue with your IT suppliers from the outset.
Begin with a kick-off meeting which brings your IT team together with your supplier’s consultants and any other third-party suppliers. Make sure that everyone understands their remit, and decide who has responsibility for signing off which decisions. It’s your opportunity to scope out the project with all concerned.
Create a detailed agenda which covers methodology, solution design and expectations of process; that way you will find that everyone is working from the same page.
2. Ensure you have the correct mix of experience allocated to the project
The implementation is your one key opportunity in five or even ten years to get the processes, system configuration and data right for your organisation. Allocating the right level of experience from within your business and your supplier is essential.
However, many consultants have a limited housing background and their experience is mainly focused on IT.
Gavin Pugh, a housing consultant at Northgate Public Services, supports this view. He said, “It’s really important to choose a housing management supplier which ensures all its consultants have a significant understanding of the housing sector, processes and best practice as well as skills in digital, data and mobility.”
3. Maintain a positive dialogue
If lines of communication remain open throughout the project, it’s easier to meet any challenges you may come up against during the implementation.
Ensure that everyone involved meets on a regular basis to discuss progress, set goals and get questions answered. When issues arise, it’s important to address them swiftly, and this will be much easier in the context of a positive business relationship.
Keep everyone in the loop with any changes that may affect the project along the way. This is critical to the success of your implementation, and it will help ensure that all the suppliers involved will work well together.
4. Set out your requirements
No one knows your business as well as you. While IT suppliers are experts in their field, they will need to learn about the way your organisation operates in order to deliver a solution that works for you.
Communicate your organisation’s aims, values and direction of travel, and discuss with your supplier how this will affect the way your IT system is set up and implemented.
For instance, if you are a charitable organisation providing accommodation for vulnerable people, you probably don’t want your system to automatically generate eviction notices in the event of arrears; instead, a more conciliatory approach might be appropriate.
Similarly, if you provide sheltered housing for the elderly, you won’t need a system that schedules visits around traditional working hours or calls that avoid the school run and so on.
5. Don’t replicate old imperfections
Just because everyone knows the foibles of your current system doesn’t mean that you need to build these into the new one. It’s a good opportunity to iron out any anachronisms and improve the way your system works. After all, it’s your chance to gain a better system for the future.
Think about whether a new starter in your company would find it easy to access and use the system. Your current workforce may be experts in the old system, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. It’s important to plan for a new system that is as future-proof as possible.
Everyone may know that the code for ‘plumbing’ has always been ‘28’, and the code for ‘carpentry’, ‘29’, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Calling them ‘plumbing’ and ‘carpentry’ will make more sense to new employees and could help with getting them up and running on the system quicker.
6. Firm up your policies and procedures
Your policies and procedures are the backbone of your organisation, and any new system needs to be aligned to the way your business works.
Ensure that your documentation is up-to-date at the start of the project. Take ownership of the solution design document and maintain that document for the life of the project. This document will contain all the configurations you request and the decisions you make.
Take your arrears policy, for instance. It’s important to decide which actions you want to take when a certain amount of money is owed or a set amount of time has elapsed with no payment. Then you can build this into your system and test it, so that by the time it goes live, your system is ready to support the way you run your organisation.
7. Travel at your own pace
A key factor in getting the implementation right for your organisation is to make sure that everyone is happy with each element of the system as it is put together.
Ask your supplier to talk your team through each individual system process. For example, make sure everyone from your organisation who needs to use the rents has seen exactly how it works and understands how to create a rent account and amend it, but don’t forget the customer journey.
Put together a session timetable so you can invite the right people from your organisation to be involved at the building, design and testing stage for each module. If you need to go back and make a change, communicate this clearly to your supplier.
Sometimes a housing provider’s needs change as their understanding of the new technology grows. Encourage your supplier to be flexible to any changes you may need to make, and make sure your organisation’s decision-makers are involved throughout the process.
8. Keep the end goal in sight
During the implementation, your supplier should be on hand to answer questions and support your team. However, the goal is for your organisation to have a thorough understanding of the new system in order to be self-sufficient as quickly as possible.
Make sure your team is fully trained on all aspects of the system they will be using before the implementation comes to an end, or during the follow-up consultancy period.
Build on your staff members’ basic skills, so that when the suppliers have left you with a brand new system, everyone knows how to insert a new job code or add a new property type without needing to ask every time.
Focus on what you want to achieve and retain that focus throughout the project, and you will be up and running as soon as the new system is in place.
Roger Birkinshaw is the Housing Director for Northgate Public Services.