In 2007 I visited the InMotion conference organised by Xmbrace. This was an impressive event, with everyone who was anyone in the mobile working space present. Back then, the talk was almost exclusively concerned with maintenance field force automation; repairs operatives in vans, GPS, how to introduce scheduling, rugged devices and promises of integration with housing management and other corporate systems. This is understandable, given that the vast majority of field work was of this type, and roles such as housing officer were seen as primarily officebased, albeit with a regular if not daily need to get out and about. It was relatively easy to make a case to invest in mobile technology to support maintenance work, although there were still many organisations for whom such solutions had yet to be seriously considered.
Over the following years, innovative housing providers and suppliers began to create mobile working solutions for other staff who regularly work in the field. Solutions for specific needs such as setting up rent payment arrangements or managing ASB cases appeared. So in 2012 when I visited the InMotion event again, I was hoping and expecting to see that the industry had broadened its view of mobile working; disappointingly, the conference was again almost entirely dominated by the maintenance agenda, and nothing much seemed to have moved on despite the availability of new solutions. It seemed that it was still only the innovators doing anything different.
Then welfare reform happened, and tenants came under unforeseen increased financial pressure. The knock-on effects for housing providers were threats to their income and increased management costs, coming at the same time that they themselves were suffering from the effects of the recession.
This rapidly escalated the need for access to a much broader scope of information and functionality in the field, for other classes of worker. Housing providers suddenly realised that they needed to get much closer to their tenants; they needed to identify not just the tenants of a property but all of the occupants, educate and reassure them about benefit changes and begin to think about and try to predict their challenges and behaviours in much more detail. The new harsher reality of operating in the sector has also led some to a new focus on commercial activities, or even a wholesale change of ethos.
Of course, a sudden and urgent emerging market need will be exploited by many suppliers. Just as in 2007 when the market was awash with mobile repairs solutions unproven in the social housing sector, there is now a plethora of mobile apps promising to meet your every need using their ‘flexible and totally customisable forms designer’, and again the promise of ‘full integration with any housing management system’. You can decide for yourself how much work needs to be done with a ‘flexible forms designer’ to get to a fit-for-purpose and robust solution for business-critical processes, or what ‘full integration’ means, especially if it’s claimed for ‘any’ HMS.
So where will this lead? The term ‘mobile working’ sounds anachronistic to the ears of many working in other sectors; it hasn’t been ‘a thing’ for a number of years, if ever; devices improved and became cheaper, people discovered that they could do things on the move and commercial necessity did the rest. I don’t remember there being any specific turning point or project to implement mobile working in Orchard, it just happened.
This is the way we suppliers should think about it; instead of trying to work out what ‘mobile working’ solutions the market needs, we need to go back to square one and instead research what life is like working the sector now, and try to predict how it will develop over the next few years. Orchard has taken this approach and has commissioned independent academic research to shape its strategy. This project has a name containing references to ‘mobile’, but in truth it represents the future of the housing management system. Perhaps the question should actually be “What does ‘Working 2.0’ look like?”
The ‘coffee-shop office’
To answer this in broad terms, it will require solutions that support what we would expect working in any other field, integrated with the specific information and tools required for working in housing. Solutions should make use of the additional opportunities that mobile technology offers, such as location awareness, communications and the ability to capture digital information at the front-line. It must use the ‘coffee-shop office’ paradigm, where we catch up with tasks during an unexpected spare hour. The days of having to go back to an office somewhere to ‘feed the beast’ must come to an end.
When it comes to choosing your IT solutions for this challenge, as ever you have many choices. There is a swarm of vendors who have been quick to develop standalone, siloed apps or forms-based toolkits; alternatively, you can look to your core suppliers to see if they’re able to provide a joined-up, strategic response to the challenge, based on thinking that reaches beyond here-and-now commercial exploitation.
Aidan Dunphy is head of product strategy at Orchard Information Systems.