The Housing Technology 2020 conference in March seems a long time ago now and for many of us, it was the last time we networked and shared a drink or two; it’s safe to say life has changed considerably since then! In our conference presentation, we cast our minds back to 2019, a year of many developments in the world of Microsoft and the technologies which played a big part in the housing sector.
We saw increased adoption of SharePoint as an electronic document and records management system (EDRM) as well as more housing management software providers becoming Office 365 aware; the start of removing barriers and understanding that the Office 365 platform is a crucial component of the housing applications landscape.
On top of these developments, we also encountered some of the other Microsoft products moving into the spotlight, with significant interest around the likes of the Dynamics 365 platform. There also seems to be an increasing trend towards a Microsoft-first approach, (a drum we have been banging for a while) which advises looking towards the Microsoft product stack to facilitate various business needs.
A new world is upon us
Coronavirus has impacted us all and we’ve been astonished by the way housing providers have embraced technology and adapted.
Many housing providers have deployed Teams at an incredible pace to enable mobile working and many modern SharePoint intranet projects have been accelerated to facilitate communication across disparate workforces. However, it’s important that organisations now take a step back to re-visit governance and compliance and evaluate the next steps most suited to their digital transformation journeys.
SharePoint for EDRM
A couple of major turning points have taken place over the past year which have seen the traditional housing management providers becoming more ‘SharePoint aware’, meaning more integrations between these applications and the SharePoint environment. This is particularly useful when using the platform for its EDRM capabilities, allowing you to get more value from your Office 365 investment and, furthermore, use other applications in the Office suite to form additional elements of your processes. For instance, using Forms’ artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to read documents and file them in the right place.
In the past, organisations had a bad habit of implementing out-of-the-box technologies for every business need, consequently finding themselves with sprawling IT environments and only using a small percentage of each application while still paying for 100 per cent of the product.
With PowerApps, multiple solutions can be developed on a single platform and, quite often, in an agile and more cost-effective manner. What’s more, the resulting applications often integrate seamlessly with the rest of the business IT environment, especially when taking a Microsoft-first approach.
Microsoft aren’t stopping with developments in this area any time soon; its Common Data Service (CDS) is being considered by many people as a low-cost entry into model-driven apps.
“What on earth is that?” we hear you ask. Well, Project Cortex is the first new service to be released in Office 365 for quite some time. The service centres around knowledge management and using AI to sweep over content – recognising content types and extracting key information to automatically align that content with various skills, people and tag words within an organisation as part of a ‘knowledge network’.
New topic pages and knowledge centres, created and updated by AI, enable subject-matter experts to curate and share knowledge with wiki-style simplicity, using intuitive topic cards to deliver relevant knowledge at just the right time and place in the apps you use every day.
This innovative technology is set to shift the boundaries and change the way we work day-to-day by allowing users to access these incredibly sophisticated knowledge centres in an instant. This could lend itself particularly well to a contact-centre environment, where staff are often required to have the right information readily available at their fingertips to accurately advise the customer on the other end of the phone.
Power Virtual Agents & UI Flows (RPA)
Another recent release from Microsoft is Power Virtual Agents which does exactly what it says on the tin; giving you the power to build chat bots with no code.
But what do you need a virtual agent for? Well, it can be as simple as sending an email to somebody, or more sophisticated, where UI Flow can be used to record keyboard and mouse inputs to feed data into legacy systems. The possibilities are endless, and the bots can be embedded almost anywhere, including within channels in Microsoft Teams, on your social media pages, tenant portal, public website or intranet.
Microsoft Forms Recogniser
Last but not least, Forms Recogniser is a cognitive service which lets you pinpoint important information in forms and extract that information as metadata that can then be used for the likes of document management and triggering workflows based on dates.
Take a gas certificate, for example. Forms Recogniser can be trained to pick up key information such as customer name, contact details, date of inspection and UPRN. Such metadata can then be applied to automatically file the document in the correct location and, if required, generate a notification or initiate an appointment booking process when the assessment is up for renewal.
This innovative service can be used for much more than just gas certificates; tenancy agreements, Land Registry documents, EPC certificates, invoices and other manual processes could also be addressed.
For those of you that were at Housing Technology 2020, remember, “It’s Office 365, Jim… but not as we know it!”
Tony Hughes is a Microsoft solution strategist and Kirsty Marsden is a senior service design lead at Technology Services Group (TSG).