In recent months, digital exclusion has become something of a hot topic in social housing. Many articles point out the benefits of overcoming the problem and highlight excellent examples of ways in which landlords might achieve this. But before we all head off to form partnerships with the local college and start wiring up high-rise blocks for broadband, there are just a few things that we might benefit from reminding ourselves of.
What digital exclusion is and what it isn’t
For many, it’s about not having access to the internet or the education to know how to use it. However, that is far from the whole story. It is important to appreciate that digital exclusion doesn’t just happen because of a lack of resources. Nor does it happen because of a conscious rejection of the technology in question. Instead, it arises as a result of an almost complete absence of awareness of what it is, what it can do and why it should be of interest at all.
Digital exclusion can essentially be defined as occurring when the factors that create social exclusion also create barriers to the use of technology. It is impossible to consider digital exclusion without fundamental references to wider social exclusion.
Imagine living without computers, email and all the other digital technology both at home and in your office today. Imagine then, it’s only you who doesn’t have access when everyone around you has. Finally, imagine that you have no idea what the others around you are doing or how they are doing it and then you might just begin to come close to appreciating the phenomenon. That is the reality for up to three out of four residents every day.
Overcoming digital exclusion is not just about getting residents in sheltered schemes online or putting PCs into communal areas, important though these projects are. For a significant number of social housing customers, it is a problem that goes much deeper.
The real causes
Digital exclusion highlights the problems faced by the socially excluded. Unlike other problems, such as employment, educational or financial exclusion, it is not a single factor. It is a something that now crosses over into so many aspects of daily life. A Communities and Local Government report in 2008 identified three main factors that cause digital exclusion. In brief they are:
- Access – Despite technology becoming cheaper, the excluded feel left behind by the technology. Therefore market forces alone will not overcome digital exclusion.
- Skills and confidence – A lack of skills and education lead to the excluded being frightened of using the technology.
- Motivation – There is an almost complete lack of perceived need. For many, in the context of their daily lives, the technology is meaningless.
It’s the third point, motivation, that will be the most difficult for landlords to overcome. For some tenants, this technology is as distant from their lives as it was to the ‘average’ person 15 years ago. Convincing people to adopt technology that they are aware of, but are distant from, is one thing. Persuading them to get interested is something that is completely off their radar is another matter entirely.
Reconsider what you know
So if it is our customer base that is most at risk from digital exclusion, why didn’t we spot the problem earlier and react to it better? One possible reason might be that we just didn’t look hard enough at our customer base. The solution must be better customer insight and effective customer relationship management, both areas where ICT has a significant role to play.
The one thing you can say about housing providers is that we all know who our customers are. We have their names and addresses, age, race, religion and perhaps their financial circumstances. But in reality, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Commercial businesses spend significant resources on understanding what makes their customer tick, such as the well-known Tesco Clubcard. Understanding what motivates, inspires and attracts customers is vital to success. And if the housing sector is to deliver a modern and effective service, then it is vital to us too.
The reality is that all customers are not the same. This is as true for our sector as any other. Many are socially, and now digitally, excluded, with everything that brings with it. We have to accept that and adjust the way we deliver communications and services. We cannot treat all our residents as if they were mainstream consumers because they’re not. Many have markedly different lifestyles to the national average and the way we communicate with them needs to be considered carefully.
That’s where good CRM systems come into play. As landlords, we need to manage information as effectively as possible to create the most accurate customer profiles. The better we understand our customers’ lifestyles and use this information to inform the way we deal with them, the better our services to them will be.
If we had managed our customer relationships better, we might have headed digital exclusion off at the pass or at least lessened its impact. Perhaps better CRM in the future will prevent another ‘digital exclusion’ happening again.
In a nutshell
Digital exclusion is not simple. For some it’s more than just a lack of resources and knowledge – for them, it is an entirely unknown area. These are the truly excluded customers – they are not only the hardest to reach but there are also more of them than we might imagine.
However, the better we understand and segment our customers, the better positioned we are to offer worthwhile help to those who really need it. Overcoming digital exclusion will in itself help to overcome many aspects of wider social exclusion. It is just a matter of offering the best solutions.
So, is it time to get customer services and ICT staff together for a proper chat?
Darren Wood is communications manager for Whitefriars Housing Group