Following our move away from an old, no-longer-fit-for-purpose housing management system to a fully-integrated Microsoft Dynamics 365 system, we thought it might be helpful to others thinking of following a similar path to describe our journey and highlight some key learnings along the way.
I wouldn’t start from here if I were you…
Back in 2019, our IT systems were something of a mishmash; an end-of-life housing management system surrounded by a motley collection of smaller systems and interfaces bought to plug the gaps. This was never going to work as a platform for our ambitious digital transformation programme. We needed a new approach.
From a technology perspective, we decided on a Microsoft-centric strategy. Implicit in this was migration to the Microsoft cloud, potentially including a move to Dynamics as the applications platform. To develop our technology roadmap, we spent several months looking at every area of our business, reviewing the way we do things, prioritising needs, understanding where existing systems fell short and identifying opportunities for process improvement.
Early on, we defined five core principles – ‘non negotiables’ that would guide our approach to developing our new system and our choice of technology partner:
- Support all of our teams across the business with a single integrated system;
- Take advantage of pre-configured software to accelerate delivery;
- Don’t reinvent the wheel – adopt sector best practice where possible;
- Build internal capability so we can modify and extend our system ourselves;
- We might rely on a partner to get us up and running, but we must take responsibility for delivery.
Our IT strategy, incorporating these principles, is the bedrock of our digital transformation.
Avoiding ‘analysis paralysis’
When defining functional requirements, we wanted to steer our business colleagues away from the idea that this would be a one-time opportunity, which inevitably would result in an unwieldy specification document listing hundreds, even thousands, of ‘requirements’. While vendors might enjoy pasting ‘fully meets’ against every line in the document, this approach was hardly likely to help us differentiate between potential partners.
Instead, we developed a framework within which high-level requirements could be discussed, assessed and prioritised, and ran a series of workshops with the business. This proved to be an interesting exercise – naturally, our business users tended to express requirements as ‘the system must do this’. We wanted to encourage them to identify opportunities for process improvement, not replicate what we already had. This, we judged, would give us enough to engage with the market.
The beauty parade
We invited a range of potential partners to showcase their solutions, emphasising our desire to see working software so we could assess what would be out of the box and what would need to be built from scratch. Crucially, we asked each to take us behind the scenes of their product so we could explore how easy it would be for us to make changes ourselves.
It quickly became apparent that the proprietary ‘closed’ solutions offered by many software vendors might meet our needs now but would offer limited opportunities for us to innovate. We noted also that these same systems fell some way short of the ‘fully integrated’ solution we were looking for.
By comparison, Esuasive’s team was able to demonstrate how a Dynamics solution would meet all of our non-functional requirements. Above all, it was being shown how easy it is to make changes in Dynamics that won us over. This proved something of an eye opener for Trivallis staff used to having to wait weeks for changes to be delivered.
Exploiting the Dynamics platform
We prioritised our contact centre and repairs processes for inclusion in a phase-one release, delivered in late 2019, followed by housing management during the first lockdown. During lockdown, our use of Teams (which we had implemented right at the start of the strategy lifecycle – almost as if it was planned!) made remote working viable and enabled us to complete our staff training prior to cutover.
We’ve now been live with Dynamics for about two years; to date we have delivered:
- Core CRM and contact centre functionality, including customer surveys;
- Repairs, including support for our DLO, a contractor works portal, and major works;
- Property and estate management, including voids;
- Lettings and tenancy management;
- Rents and service-charge processing.
In every release we have streamlined and automated our processes to significantly enhance productivity and, crucially, eliminate users’ frustration with technology at a time when our business colleagues have had plenty of more important things to worry about.
From a data perspective, centralising our data has given us a single view of every interaction with our customers. This is enabling us to optimise performance, drive business improvement and enhance the level of service we provide to our residents.
Throughout, Esuasive has acted as a ‘critical friend’, challenging our assumptions, sense-checking our requirements and helping to design our processes to ensure we adhere to our ‘best practice’ and ‘out of the box’ principles.
What have we learned that might help other housing providers considering Dynamics?
- Dynamics 365 has proved to be exactly what we hoped it would be – a highly configurable, scalable platform for solution delivery.
- Leveraging an ‘accelerator’ has worked for us; the ease of configuring Dynamics has made it possible to deliver much faster than we anticipated.
- The out-of-the-box principle has saved us a lot of time and effort. By adopting the sector-specific best practices inherent in the Esuasive system, we’ve avoided the painful process of defining our requirements upfront, in detail and system unseen (seldom a good way to specify what you need).
- Engaging our users in design workshops has stimulated innovation. It has also fostered a sense of ownership. Our users genuinely see Dynamics as ‘their system’.
- Because it is quick and easy to make changes, it really has been possible for us to be agile in the way we go about delivering new systems (that’s a whole other topic, of course).
An IT strategy is not just for IT. ‘Digital’ is at the heart of our business transformation programme, and it is essential that our business colleagues buy in to our IT strategy and the core principles we have established.
It takes time to build skills in house, so start early. We wanted to cross-train existing IT staff who understand our business onto the Dynamics platform. It can be done, but don’t underestimate the learning curve – from a developer’s perspective, Dynamics is a large and powerful beast.
We’ve made fantastic progress with our transformation, but there is still much to do. Our next major release will include the migration of our existing asset management processes onto the Esuasive system and the rollout of functionality to meet new compliance requirements. Behind that we have further releases slated through to the end of 2022.
Dynamic 365 has proved to be the right technology platform for Trivallis. We’re looking forward to delivering the next phases of our transformation and achieving our ultimate objective – one integrated system supporting all our staff and every aspect of our business.
Dr. Neil Jones is the corporate director for transformation, and Rachel Schmidt is the business improvement partner at Trivallis.