4 years, 11 months ago

A Vision for the Future Housing Association

What does the future Housing Association look like?

The housing sector is facing some its biggest challenges in memory. Changes in government policy, budget cuts, increased and more complex user demand, all running on systems developed to manage life in the 1990s. It’s an overwhelming challenge – where do you even start? And what will the future look like?

Well, one reaction has been to start merging them. Often driven by geographical and cultural synergies, Housing Associations are pooling resources to share skillsets, systems, and processes will make groups of organisations greater than the sum of its parts. In 2015, Circle, Affinity Sutton, East Thames, Network, Hyde, L&Q, etc are all in the process. It’s an interesting strategy – but inherently risky: the Harvard Business Review shows failure rates of M&A as high as 70-90%. It’s certainly no silver bullet.

But is it really a question of just getting more efficient at what we’ve always done? Perhaps the problem we’re addressing is not one of scale, but the way we are fundamentally doing things.

Is it really a question of just getting more efficient at what we’ve always done?

I believe creating bigger Housing Associations, with the same outmoded way of doing business is not the real answer. Mergers serve only to distract from the real task at hand. What we should be doing is renewing our understanding of how Housing Associations deliver value to their customers, allowing us to align how the business operates with the needs of the people it’s serving.

This re-imagined world needs a clear and coherent vision; one that puts the customer at the heart of everything whilst remaining adaptable to the constant change of our very digital world.  

Here is how I think we can do this.

True North = Customer Needs

It is no co-incidence that when an organisation puts customer needs at the heart of their business, it does not just succeed, it thrives. The future Housing Association makes life easy for the customer by keeping its processes simple for them. It does this by taking time to understand the customer journey and making sure their needs are a standard part of their decision-making process.

If you truly understand what your customers need, you can be confident about making the right changes that they will value

This means services are designed around the things that are genuinely important to them and you can focus your resources and energy on making changes you know will make the biggest positive impact.

Thinking ‘mobile-first’

Delivering great customer experience starts with being where your customers are – and most of them are on mobile, where they can interact anywhere, any time. A recent report by Ofcom showed that two thirds of adults in the UK now have a smartphone. For new generations, it’s a standard channel – as technology analyst Brian Solis explains  “generation Z is mobile first and mobile only”. Mobile isn’t the future – it’s now. Also people are now spending more time on their mobiles – in fact, in 2014 the time we all spent online using our mobile overtook desktop usage for the first time.

Delivering great customer service starts with being where your customers are – and most of them are on mobile.

The future HA identified the customer interactions that work on mobile and made sure its systems were integrated to support it. For colleagues, it identified how different roles needed to work and provided a common platform so that the decision of how, when and where to work was one dictated by people, not technology.

This same technology also allowed them to scrap manual processes that add no value, giving staff more time to support your customers. Everyone gets more from face to face interactions by having access to the right systems and information on the move. Plus, if your whole workforce is enabled to work remotely, you could rent a smaller office space, reducing a significant cost.

Open processes

The processes of yesteryear have lost their ambiguity and inconsistency. They are now are defined, transparent, accessible and visible to all stakeholders. Customers can get the information they need about the status of their request and your partners find it easy to work with you. This makes it easier to remove inefficiencies.

For example, take repairs and maintenance processes. The future HA built transparency into those processes, such as making better use of video and photos, meaning there was less waste through mis-diagnosis, variations and inspections.

If you’re clear about how things work, it makes it easier for your customers and partners to do business with you – reducing frustrations and increasing trust.

If everyone can see and understand the processes, it’s not a hard sell to make changes to improve them.

Recognising data as an asset

For the future HA, data doesn’t support decisions – it drives them. It can do this because it has invested in a Business Intelligence strategy that turns data from plain old information (something interesting) to actionable insight (something useful). In fact it’s so useful that it can help make tangible improvements to the customer experience and the future HA’s finances.

This insight could tell you, for example, ‘This type of boiler is responsible for 76% of all boiler call-outs’, ‘These houses are likely to flood if rainfall continues at the current rate’, ‘There is a 95% chance that this tenant will go into arrears within 6 months’.

Treating data as an asset, can turn information from something interesting into something useful

A single platform for Housing

The future HA has a technology platform that supports all its core activities. It provides a single view of the its properties and customers, so everyone in the HA team has the information they need in one place. The platform also helps find and collate the right resources and people needed to complete a task – making it easier to collaborate.

A single platform gives your team more useful customer information, helps them to collaborate more easily and deliver a better customer experience

The platform is central to how the business delivers value to its customers. It improves customer service by allowing the HA to communicate with its customers digitally (including via mobile) as standard. It also helps the HA team deliver a better customer experience as they can access the information they need at the right time during a customer enquiry.

The Virtual Association

In response to tighter budgets, the future HA undertakes only those activities that are core to them. For everything else, it created stronger partnerships with other HAs, local authorities and other social enterprises, sustaining an ecosystem of organisations, who can deliver complementary but non-core activities

Collaborating more with others, gives you more time to focus on your core business

They are able to work in a more open collaborative way, through Enterprise social networking, voice and video conferencing, plus document collaboration & management, no matter which team they work in and wherever they are.

When can this vision become reality?

The truth is, there’s nothing here that can’t be done today. The building blocks already exist, or are within a HA’s capability to set up. The world may have changed around Housing Associations but the seemingly insurmountable challenges can be met right now. This ‘future’ isn’t a distant vision – it’s here today.

5 years, 9 months ago

Housing Technology Manifesto

Last year I was involved in some good conversations facilitated by Hact around the current state of the technology tools that are used within Housing Associations (short blog about it here), this was partly sparked by a couple of blog posts I wrote here and here. The thing that was evident for me from the discussions, which included around 10 Heads of IT/IT Directors from various housing associations was the pent up demand to think and act differently in terms of tools we use to enable our organisations to achieve their goals.

So, what happened? not much for a number of reasons, but looking on a year or so from those conversations there is more need than ever for us to revisit the thinking behind these meetings and do something:

  • Incumbent suppliers still not delivering to the needs of the sector
  • Business ambitions curtailed or impeded through an inability to provide the right tools for the job
  • Market and government forces putting even greater pressure on the sector to think and act differently and requiring an even greater flexibility and agility from the technology that should enable the organisations.
  • Larger Housing associations are moving into largescale CRM and/or ERP implementations
  • Housing associations still buying ‘all in one’ or ‘best of breed’ solutions that simply don’t fit their businesses
  • OJEU compliant procurements that may be successful in-spite of rather than because of the process
We can and should do better. Where do we start? I think there are two simple steps:

  1. Manifesto, Principles, 10 commandments, whatever you want to call it, lets create a statement of intent, a banner under which we can congregate that set out very clearly what we expect from the technology that supports out organisations (potential e.g. mobile first, API, open standards, etc).
  2. Once we have this manifesto we can use it to drive change, change in how we behave as informed and strong customers, change in how our incumbent and future suppliers think about and develop the software tools that we use

get in touch via Twitter and we’ll get things moving.

5 years, 10 months ago

What does mapping affordable housing teach us?

Although i no longer work for a housing association, I still often work with them now as clients and its an area that still interests me and obviously its something thats very current with ‘interesting’ government policy picking up post-election where IDS’s pre-election Oveton windowing left off.

So I thought i’d try using the wonderful Wardley map technique to help me think about affordable housing. The model below is just a sketch, i go by the E.P. Box quote of ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ as a motto. My intention is to develop this model over time, but even this sketch sparks some interesting thoughts.

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The map is a value chain (starting with user need at the top and then moving down the Y axis to its dependent parts. The X axis moves from Genesis->Customer Built->Product->Commodity, the phases of which each of the components will go through over time. I’ll leave the explanation of Wardley maps there, Simon’s blog has some great material doing a much better job than i could.

So looking at the limited number of components that i’ve mapped so far we have:

The user need for affordable housing, I’ve placed that within Product on the X axis as its a reasonably well-defined Product category.

Flowing from that need is the need for accommodation, the actual dwelling that would be occupied. I’ve placed this further to the left on the Product phase to denote the myriad of ‘product’ that could be classed as accommodation.

Next is Construction, the actual creation of the accommodation, i’ve placed this in Custom Built, ok there are plenty of building companies (even a conglomerate of housing associations) that are developing/have developed off-the-peg house products and factories, but this isn’t standard construction (in the UK) yet.

From construction the value chain splits off into 3 prongs:

Prong 1: Land, is placed in the commodity space, Assuming i have the money i can just buy land, its not infinite, but then neither are other commodities e.g. gold.

From Land flows Planning, i’ve placed this in Custom Built on the X axis, I can’t just buy some planning (although some conspiracy theorist-type people might say you can :)), its a ritualistic and prevaricatory process.

Prong 2:

Construction also flows to Architecture, the generic term i’ve given to the design of the accommodation. I’ve placed this to the right edge of Custom Built as its rarely an off the peg process (see my description of Construction).

From Architecture flows Labour, the actual implementation of the design and the creation of the accommodation. I’ve placed this within Product, construction is performed by defined trades, brickie, chippie, plumber, etc, for the purposes of this analysis they are defined products that you can buy (hire).

 From Labour flows the Materials needed to construct the house, these are Commodities, wood, slate, etc etc.

Prong 3

(This prong i’m not too sure about the placement, maybe those with a better understanding of housing finance can help me improve this bit?)

Construction also flows to Finance, the Money to pay for the development of new accommodation. I’ve put Finance in the commodity phase.

Finance flows to two forms of money that Housing associations traditionally use to get capital to build homes 1) Grants (although not so much now) and 2) Bonds (and similar vehicles) secured against existing housing stock. I’ve placed grants in Customer Built because of their often tailored (and elusive) nature. I’ve placed Bonds within the Product phase (although maybe they should be a commodity?) as whilst the actual issued bonds themselves may be bought/sold as commodities the actual issuance of bonds is a process more akin to a product development (or maybe its even custom built?)

So thats my explanation of this intial sketch of a map. but the interesting and important question is, ok so we’ve mapped the value chain but…

Where are the opportunities?

Starting at the bottom of the value chain and working up we have Grants and Bonds occupying the Customer Built and Product phases. Assuming these positions are correct it highlights two things to me:

1) that there are probably other sources of finance that could be accessed

2) There is no commodity form of Finance, maybe there is an opportunity here to explore around re-thinking how HAs finance house-building

Similarly near the bottom of the value chain Materials are commodity, but Labour and Architecture are not. As mentioned above many small scale house builders are building what you might call commodity housing (factory built components, prefabricated compents etc), but this isn’t how the majority of new HA stock is built. Why not? I don’t know the answer to this question (maybe its to do with the commercial relationships we have with developers, something i should map on the next iteration of this map), but surely this must be a huge area of focus. It seems obvious (because it is) that if we move Architecture and Labour towards commodity then we can build more, cheaper and faster. It will be interesting to see if the HA house factory metioned above is a success and becomes a model adopted by more HAs.

Further up the value chain is Planning and Land. Land is a commodity, but depends on Planning which i’ve put in Customer Built. The focus for HAs should be to move Planning towards a commodity. The current government have made moves in this area but i think its for HAs to push/lobby further in this area.

So this is my initial and no doubt naive initial analysis using Wardley maps. I’d really appreciate any feedback, suggestions on improvements, particularly:

1) Additional components of the value chain

2) Placement of components on the X and Y axes.

Feel free to comment on this post and/or contact me on twitter

6 years, 11 months ago

The Future of Housing Tech Roundtable

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On Tuesday 22nd a group of people interested in tech in Housing gathered together at a roundtable faciliated and arranged by HACT and hosted by Paul Foster at Microsoft.

It was a really interesting session. I did a couple of presentations based on my recent posts here and here to seed different parts of the debate, which I think worked ok, although as i hadn’t had as much time as i’d have liked to prep i think i probably waffled a bit too much 🙁

Anyway, this post is intended to capture some thoughts from the day.

These will focus around the following areas:

  • People
  • Suppliers
  • Data
  • Platforms and Services
  • Manifesto

People

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I find it easy to fall into the trap of being overly sceptical and pessimistic about #ukhousing its lack of innovation, its intertia etc. but roundtables like the one we had are a great antidote to that where you get the opportunity to talk to bright, intelligent, experienced individuals who are really switched on to their challenges and those of their business.

Suppliers

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I don’t think we got too hung up on incumbent bashing, but there was a justified amount of this, although it was rightly tempered I think with an acceptance that ‘customers get the suppliers they deserve’. There is more as individuals and as a community that we can do to get the most value out of our existing suppliers as well as look to other opportunities outside the traditional #ukhousing pond.

Data

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Data was a common theme amongst the discussions. A couple of key points stuck in my mind:

  • The recognition that data is the lifeblood of an organisation and the crucial (but not sole) role that IT/Tech plays in unlocking its value.
  • The desire to de-silo data, to share it more freely and to mash it up with other existing or new data sources.
  • The difficulty of working within the current similar information system architectures that those round the table shared, often related to issues with supplier technology, sometimes even contractual issues. this really re-enforced for me the view that our ambitions as housing orgs are sometimes being constrained rather than enabled by those we choose to partner with.

Platforms and services

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There seemed to be a consensus that whilst we ‘do all do the same things’ the individual shape of housing orgs can be different e.g. student housing, leisure centre management, telecare.

I think there was a consensus that the monoliths of the current/past are not fit and that a more flexible architecture where element are composable to reflect the nature of the organisation is the way ahead.

I think in writing about a Platform in my recent blog posts I might have given the impression that i was talking about some monolithic beast. I was not. My thinking in this space is very much informed by this great post on ‘Micro Services’ by Martin Fowler (hey i’m an Enterprise Architect I can’t go a whole post without referring to a buzzword!). just as an ideal housing org’s business should be oriented around the service it delivers to its customers, so should its ideal information systems architecture.

Manifesto

Towards the end of the roundtable we touched on the idea of coalescing some of our discussion, our frustration, our aspirations and principles into a document, I think i mentioned the ‘M’ word, but it doesn’t have to be a manifesto, as an Enterprise Architect i’d view it as a collection of architecture principles that clarify what we want a housing technologists. What do we need? what will we not put up with?

I see this manifesto having two important uses:

1)

Imagine if a large enough portion of the housing community agreed with, helped improve and signed up to the manifesto? What a great statement of intent to deliver to suppliers to the sector! we would immediately be raising the bar of expectation across the sector.

I find it ironic that, as a sector that seems to spend half its energy chasing some sector/regulator/government standard that we haven’t had the same focus on standards within the technology layer in the organisation.

2)

If the #ukhousing community did ever want to do something innovative ‘by themselves, for themselves’ then what a great starting point the manifesto would be? essentially encapsulating the design principles for any initiative.

As to what the manifesto might contain? that will have to wait for another post.

Conclusion

This is just a snapshot (although longer than i intended) on the roundtable. I’ve missed loads including Lucy Glenday from Surrey CC Skyping in to talk about the omni-channel platform that they are building. There are plans for future ones focused around the manifesto. I’d urge those that are interested and those that couldn’t make it to get involved.

I’ll be running a session on the future of housing tech at House Party so please pop along if any of this post has interested you. Hopefully it will be fun and involve making prototypes of peoples vision for housing tech in the future (it might involve cardboard boxes and string(!?) if i can stop writing blog posts and start planning it :))

Also feel free to get in touch, always happy to chat about, well, pretty much anything 🙂