Social Housing IT Systems – What are the greatest opportunities for improvements?

This question was asked by Michael Fisher in the Social Housing IT group on LinkedIn:

Put another way, for those who have in-depth experience in providing and servicing integrated IT systems for numerous Councils/Housing Authorities Social Housing Departments, what are:
1) the greatest weakness in current systems?
2) the optimal solutions which can be applied with the cost being significantly below the financial benefits gained within two, three, four and five years?
NB: I am not a software systems provider, do not intend to be and I have no affiliations with any particular IT/Software provider.
I realise that the question is rather broad and that answers will vary depending on the particular Housing Authority’s current systems and other differentiating factors. Nevertheless I am looking for are those areas where there is a broad consensus on the factors that will yield ‘best’ and greatest savings for the client Housing Authorities.

Comments posted seemed to postulate a number of points:

  1. CRM systems are best when not integrated with Housing Management systems
  2. Housing Management systems needed to be adaptable by the customer
  3. A national housing management system would be:
    1. desirable
    2. possible
  4. Suppliers were too expensive

My thoughts

A CRM integrated within a Housing Management system need not be a bad thing, actually (in my opinion, anyway!). If the primary business of an organisation is Housing Management, and only HM, then I don’t see it as bad – particularly if the organisation is on the smaller side. For a Local Authority, it makes sense to have a CRM that fits for the customer base it is supposed to cover, thus the front office system needs to integrate with systems other than Housing and is thus better off not being an integral part of the Housing system itself.

I’m also not sure I would agree with an over-reliance on – as it has so nicely been put – adaptive self-controlled systems. This seems like a new slant of in house development, which has proven successful in the past but also proven to be problematic.

Where systems have been developed from scratch in the past, they have been fantastic solutions that suited the organisation perfectly, and in the early days of their development were very easy to change to external requirements. But all the development and changes require in-house expertise that doesn’t tend to get the investment (in either new skills, technology or market developments) and is never documented in a way that caters for staff – and knowledge – leaving. The systems end up (albeit sometimes after many, many years) old, creaky and unmanageable.

Thus development by external companies is a better option, as they have to continually refresh their knowledge to remain competitive – the costs of this, and the system development, are then shared amongst their whole customer base.

“In my experience, the greatest weakness in current systems is a lack of continued investment and development by the customers.”

All too often, in my experience, a team of people are installed to work with the supplier to implement the system. They gain knowledge of configuration and system use, and are then sent back to their old jobs or leave. This is then followed by a period of stability whilst the system continues to provide adequate performance, but when external factors change (or even internal ones following restructures, mergers, fundamental reviews or the like), there is no one left in the support teams with the knowledge of how to adapt the system. The savings made by not keeping a team of development-capable staff are not then offset against the cost of calling the system developer back in, because they were never quantified in the first place in any way other than a cost that wasn’t needed.

Implementing a new system is nearly always done with an aim to replicate existing business functionality whilst making some efficiencies here and there. Often, the new system will have far greater functionality than the old one, but in order to keep implementation time and costs down, these are slated for later investigation – which rarely materialise. And the reluctance to call in the costly supplier comes back in to the equation.

HM is not HB…

The housing management function is surprisingly diverse in the way it is delivered. It’s not like Housing Benefit or Job Seeker’s Allowance management – the latter has a nation wide Management System in place, and I believe the former could benefit (if you’ll pardon the phrase) from the same – if not a nation-wide management system, then certainly a nation-wide payment collection/distribution system (imagine HBACS, a BACS equivalent for HB rather than Direct Debits/Credits). This is because HB and JSA are so rigidly legislatively driven that there can be little variation in the way they are managed. But the methods of dealing with a repair request or collecting unpaid rent are determined by the housing providers individually, so a nation-wide management system (whilst it could be considered an holy grail) could not be implemented until local variations and political interests are removed.

Good luck with that!  Winking smile

Something similar was tried in Eire a few years back but failed because the numerous and various housing organisations just could not agree on sufficiently common policies.

That being said, New South Wales and Holland do have something approaching this ideal, but they have an umbrella organisation in each, that retain invested-in and developed staff. NSW Housing Department is the organisation in New South Wales, and in Holland it is NCCW. The latter is interesting, in that they eventually purchased development rights to the management system and now fully support and develop it.

“Office applications are not as critical as business management and information systems”

Housing Management systems are not like MS Office, though there are some similarities to the way they are regarded in organisations. MS Office is on the PC, staff may get some basic training on it but are rarely shown how to use the applications in the most effective way (how many people know of the benefits of working with Styles, Table of Contents or auto-text when writing reports in Word, for example?). But the Office applications are not as critical as business management and information systems, so investment and development of staff in that area is forgivable, if annoying.

Even then, if development or training was required, I think few organisations would employ Microsoft to deliver it, so perhaps organisations should think of third party suppliers when they wish to review existing implementations and configurations and minimise the costs, rather than going back to the initial supplierbit of a shameless plug, there…

My point is, often an existing system is capable of being changed to support changing requirements, but the lack of internal investment in skills excludes internal resources, and the cost of calling in the developer – at least for advice – is often seen as too expensive. So it gets replaced – and the cycle continues. Those that employ continued investment and development often benefit from being able to steer the application development too.

Regular servicing yields smoother running

Consider it like owning a car – you don’t have to get it serviced regularly, but it will last longer if you do. You don’t have to get it serviced by a dealer, as they are often more expensive than independents. You could service it yourself, but sometimes your experience and resources are better used elsewhere and a trained/qualified/experienced mechanic could do it better and quicker than you, saving you time that then allows you to use that time where you can best be used.

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Testing the new blogger

Looks like Mr Gates has given up on Live Spaces, so migrated to Blogger… let’s see how it works!

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And so it starts…

I think I really should have started this some time ago… about the time Amanst came into being, really. It would have given me an opportunity to keep a record of the work I have been doing with my various customers, both the good and the bad…

Fortunately, it looks as though Mr Gates has quite a reasonable suite of software for blogging, so I can create this today and it looks like I was really forward thinking and did it ages ago :)

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