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Driving Digital Transformation within the Housing Sector

Amy McCabe

12 May 2021

by Amy McCabe

( Words)
Last month, La Fosse Associates worked alongside Transformation Consultant Cher Lewney from One Consulting to deliver two roundtable events focused on the challenges and opportunities facing the UK housing sector. The following write-up was kindly provided by One Consulting, and summarises all the key points discussed throughout.

It feels like the housing sector has been in a cycle of continual transformation for as long as we can remember! With emerging and evolving technologies, the opportunities to re-think the way services are designed and delivered are continually changing, and the sector is clearly trying to take advantage of those opportunities to deliver smarter, more efficient services to their customers. Indeed, increasingly customers are expecting and demanding it!

So, how is it going? What progress has been made so far? If we stop for breath at this point, what lessons can we take from experiences to date and how can we use those to shape and refine the way ahead?

Is transformation dead?

When transformation is continuous and never seems to stop, does it just become the norm and the way we deliver services?
Is the continual cycle of change, just a normal reaction to the evolving pace of technology development and changing customer expectations? Does it, therefore, just need to be built into day-to-day service delivery as part of an ongoing commitment to continuous incremental improvement?
Is it naïve to think anyone will ever reach the holy grail of the optimal end-to-end digital experience and be able to sit back and rest on their laurels?! And, if so, do we therefore make life harder for ourselves and add more pressure by formalising the way do things and labelling it ‘transformation’?

Clarify the vision

Don’t get bogged down in producing a library of strategies beneath your overarching vision. Ask if producing a strategy is a delaying tactic to avoid getting on and doing the work. If the organisation’s vision is clearly defined in terms of overall objective, challenge how many more documents you may need – and why you need them! Is it because the strategic plan itself lacks clarity?

Change fatigue

How do you recognise that your teams may feel this is never-ending and find it difficult to be excited by the next, new shiny programme of activity? Is the low-key, incremental focus on improvement one answer in addressing this?

Shifting customer experiences

Not all customers are yet digitally confident and, for some organisations, telephone is still the preferred channel for contact. We may need to recognise and consider why people contact their landlord - some of the issues are very human and matter very much to the customer who, in those circumstances, still needs empathy and reassurance.

The telephone is not dead.

Some processes are right – like payments – to receive the ‘Amazon experience’, but housing needs to keep the human empathy in some areas. Transactional activities should aim to be effortless, and the capacity created by this efficiency should enable more focus to be given to more complex issues where tenants require support.

Some processes – like repairs - are quite complicated and may not be right for full automation. Customers may receive a better service, and a more efficient outcome, by retaining a degree of human intervention to ensure that their request is fully understood before a response is planned.
Where things have gone well, it’s where the customer reason has been identified at the outset, and the redesign of the process has focused clearly on fixing that problem for the customer. Where the impact of change has not been so good, it’s where the change has been driven by changes to technology.

Things work when they solve a problem.

Data issues

Beginning to present data from back-office systems to customers can highlight where historic data is not fit for purpose. Colleagues may not always fully understand the implication of what they are doing, and what they may need to do when the data they enter is increasingly transparent and visible to others.

What new skills may they need and how do you support your teams to be ready?

Moving away from traditional system providers

The housing sector is possibly not large enough to have supported effective investment in housing management systems, which has led to some organisations exploring wider options to help them deliver the objectives defined in the vision for their organisation.

There is a whole spectrum of thinking on the ways in which wider platform-type systems, like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics could be used instead of, or alongside, more traditional systems.

Salesforce

In the example discussed, Salesforce was selected to provide customer facing services – to enable end-to-end customer journeys, incorporating the full view of omnichannel contacts, including voice, social media and online transactions. The purpose was to provide customer ease of use and customer choice.

Here, Salesforce was combined with best of breed elements for the likes of Finance and HR functions; as well as industry-specific systems for asset management and rents and service charges. It was agreed to focus on industry specific solutions where it absolutely makes sense, but get the best of both worlds by leveraging the capabilities of generic best in class systems.

A key objective was to provide continual, incremental enhancements, designed to respond to evolving understanding of customer need. The Salesforce platform removed the need for periodic large-scale system upgrades and enabled a shift to the incremental addition of small improvements for customers fairly seamlessly.

Microsoft Dyamics

Experience in the sector is evolving and the conversation is maturing. Although some organisations are still pursuing the full Microsoft Dynamics ERP platform, increasingly, the trend seems to be shifting towards hybrid models, using Microsoft Dynamics alongside industry-specific solutions.
While organisations traditionally looked to use core products like Dynamics Customer Engagement (formerly CRM), some are now exploring lighter touch approaches using the Power Platform, with Power Apps, Power BI and Power Automate to complement their legacy systems and fill the gaps.

One of the benefits of that approach seems to be that you can pursue the single platform vision incrementally over a period of time, and adapt the solution to fit the specific needs and situation of your organisation. In the end, you may end up with a full-ERP solution, but adopting a hybrid approach at the outset may be a lower risk approach and allow the business case to be re-visited and re-evaluated throughout the implementation to ensure that continued investment still makes sense.

Interestingly, there was some feedback to suggest that those who have Dynamics felt that they could not have made the progress to modernise that they have if they had not had Dynamics.

Emerging disruptors

Some evidence of new options coming to market that may offer wider choice in an affordable way for landlords who may feel that the Dynamics or Salesforce-type route are out of their reach. Things like Netcall’s Low Code offer and Optus Homes app for tenants are ones to watch!

However, regardless of the technology strategy adapted, the most crucial element is not to lose sight of the Corporate Plan and its overarching objectives for the business and its customers. Organisations shouldn’t just look at systems, but explore new ways of working that ultimately fix the problems that matter most – such as how to provide customers assurance around compliance or how to make services easier to access.

The IT strategy has to directly enable improved customer services and work closely with the business. IT and the business need to work as partners, with technology viewed as an enabler of service improvement, not an end in itself.

Cultural issues

Organisations often forget to invest time and energy supporting their staff to unlearn things and make a true shift to new ways of working. While staff may be trained on new systems and new apps, do we think enough about how people are supported to unlearn and adapt? And do we recognise enough that people will take different amounts of time to do that?

Data insight and personas are increasingly used by housing associations to understand the customer base and allow services and approaches to be tailored more effectively to individuals. That same thinking, however, is often not applied to staff groups, to recognise generational differences and adapt to different styles and speeds of learning. One size does not fit all.

Impact of the pandemic

What does the long-term response to the pandemic look like and what will flexible models of mobilised workforces look like going forwards?
Technology challenges were delivered at pace to respond to the urgency of the pandemic without necessarily being strategically designed, so some consolidation and clarification of standards may be required.

Culturally, people need people. Although things are unlikely to revert to how they used to be, some thought may need to be given to whether changed ways of working impact innovation. It is recognised that productivity may not have been affected, but what about wider human wellbeing, the benefits of interaction and the impact on ideas and innovation?

Measuring impact

How do you measure impact? Focus on all of the elements that improve from a range of perspectives to build a narrative, rather than expecting to make a purely financial judgement. Don’t lose sight of:

  • What problem are you trying to fix?

  • What impact are you trying to have?

  • How will you know if you’ve been successful?

  • What really matters to the organisation and your customers?

​As much as transformation is often enabled by and designed around technology, getting buy-in from staff is potentially the key determinant of success or failure. How do you shape and deliver successful transformation? What are the key things to take into account and how do you encourage and nudge changes in behaviour, in both customers and staff? And how do you sustain it – how do you make it stick?

What are the hints and tips that make a programme of change deliver the outcomes it intended at the outset?

The absolute basics

At the core, to be successful, you need momentum and real commitment at the most senior level of the organisation. The Exec Board need to buy into the vision, and delivery needs to build credibility by incrementally making progress in the early stages. Getting agreement to invest becomes easier once the team start to build credibility through confidence in their ability to deliver.

However, no system implementation is a technical change – every technical change is a people change; and this needs to be recognised by the organisation. People will adapt to change at different paces and in different ways. The organisation needs to understand their people in order to deliver change.

Transformation is about people and culture; it’s never about a system and technology.

Resourcing change

An organisation needs to support the team to be successful by resourcing it properly. A team cannot deliver fundamental change where they are expected to deliver it as a bolt on to their ‘real job’. An organisation needs to put the right support in place to enable their colleagues to be successful, and mustn’t underestimate the capacity required to deliver.

If the organisation is delivering multiple priorities and objectives simultaneously, be realistic and identify whether the different programmes of change are fishing in the same pool of resources. Be fair and kind to your staff and recognise the resourcing and investment required to deliver the scale of change you want – at the pace you want it.

As leaders, make the difficult decisions around additional investment in capacity versus delayed delivery of some priorities.

Be realistic that change will take time.

Avoiding change fatigue

Change is essential – organisations need to grasp it and need to be bold, but the way in which it is done needs to be considered. Recognise that change is something that people do every day, but then consider how people will be helped to develop the skillset they need to deal with that and cope in a world that is changing continually. This is essential to manage levels of anxiety around the change and build the confidence and resilience needed on an ongoing basis.

Recognise that people may be tired, especially post-Covid, and find it difficult to be enthusiastic when new changes are proposed and launched. Try to reflect this in your planning and approach.

Move away from talking about a change programme and normalise ongoing change.

Selling it to customers

Customers have increasingly high expectations about the digital experience they will be offered by their landlord. Although housing associations will never be Google or Amazon, there are lessons to be learned from the experts in digital experience. As a sector, we need to develop proper technology to support our customers to access our services and invest in the skills needed to maintain and continue to develop those capabilities in the longer term:
Professionalise the approach and learn from other sectors to mimic what is successful.
However, if it is easier to access a service by digital means than by traditional means, where it is not about access or skills or confidence, why do customers not choose to use the alternative methods to access services? Do we understand what goes wrong when customers don’t buy in?

  • Make sure you understand your customers. Consult and engage with them across a range of personas to get a variety of perspectives to influence your approach and thinking.

  • Where services are developing incrementally or in an agile way, build ongoing consultation and involvement with customers into part of the delivery process – keep checking back that you are delivering the right things.

  • Categorise e.g. by generation (X, Y, Z) and also by customer sub-groups, such as families with children, single parent families, couples with no children etc. Understand what makes them use the internet and what they perceive barriers to be,

  • Design a nudge campaign based on their feedback to encourage changes in behaviour – and recognise that one size does not fit all. In doing this, tailor messages to the things that matter to your customers. Emphasise the words that respond to their concerns i.e. where people are concerned about data security, emphasise the ability to access information securely; where people want financial transparency, emphasise the benefits of accessing the rent account online. Highlight the positive message they want to hear and also overcome the fears that are highlighted.

  • Co-create the change, listen to what matters and don’t expect it to happen overnight.

Dream big but don’t start big

A compelling vision is essential for collective purpose so that people are aligned and working together on an ongoing basis. In any change, small is beautiful – to build credibility, to build confidence and to celebrate achievements. Start small and get momentum – keep an overarching view of the big vision but get momentum gradually first.

When getting started, get traction by targeting people who are already enthusiastic and onboard to create a network of collaborators – to bounce off and support each other while you get that initial buy in to the vision.

But also engage opposing views and perspectives in those conversations – seek out those conversations so that you can understand the perspective and seek to use it to influence planning.

Not everyone will love what’s happening and people will be at different stages in the enthusiasm for, and acceptance of, change. Recognise that it’s not people being obtuse or difficult, it’s science and they need to go through a cycle of acceptance!

Don’t forget to communicate and celebrate success – stop and recognise the progress you are making and the success you are having.

Scaling from a proof of concept

Keep the big vision but start small, so how do you start to industrialise an idea which started as a proof of concept? A roadmap is needed and you need to deliver as you go so that people don’t become impatient and funding/resourcing is removed. Agile delivers on an ongoing basis so, when done well, it is an effective way of delivering and supporting that.

Don’t over-promise and under deliver. People are often excited at the beginning of a new programme of work, but technical departments can get a bad reputation because people’s expectations have not been managed and plans not been realistic. Try to focus incrementally on what’s next.

Cultural issues

Organisations often forget to invest time and energy supporting their staff to unlearn things and make a true shift to new ways of working. While staff may be trained on new systems and new apps, do we think enough about how people are supported to unlearn and adapt? And do we recognise enough that people will take different amounts of time to do that?

Data insight and personas are increasingly used by housing associations to understand the customer base and allow services and approaches to be tailored more effectively to individuals. That same thinking, however, is often not applied to staff groups, to recognise generational differences and adapt to different styles and speeds of learning. As with customers, one size does not fit all.

Digital mindset

What are the behaviours and attitude that the organisation needs to deliver the defined vision?

People, in general, struggle with ambiguity but, as organisations, we need to learn to accept that as part of an incremental delivery, because we don’t always understand what the end goal will look like precisely.

Consider the emerging behaviours that are needed in a digital environment. What is different about expectations in a digital world, how does that change your expectations of your teams, and then how do you build in patience to take people with you who take a bit longer to understand and adapt?

Recognise that traditional roles are evolving and changing as digital delivery evolves i.e. multi-channel contact centres will require staff who can manage multiple webchats simultaneously, and this is a different skill to traditional voice-based services.

So, what skills are needed? What culture are you trying to create? How do you make customers feel valued as your services become digital and potentially more automated?

Think about the language that’s needed. Get match fit and maintain fitness for the long term. Continuing the sporting analogy, appoint coaches across the organisation to work with your teams and help you through. Identify and manage your organisational talent and recognise the continuum of ongoing effort required to deliver continuous improvement.

At the end of a transaction:

  • What do you want people to do now?

  • What do you want people to think?

  • How do you want people to feel?

  • In delivering your roadmap for change:

    • What will it look like?

    • What will you be measuring?

    • What will it feel like?

Key takeaways and lessons learned

  • Accept that you will make mistakes – learn from them and build on them.

  • A quiet go live is probably a good go live (but always celebrate internal wins!)

  • Organisations are changing constantly. Recognise that as the organisation restructures or key people leave, the purpose and framework of the programme can be forgotten, so it may need to be re-stated and reaffirmed.

  • Make sure you invest enough time understand your staff and customers so you can respond to the things that matter to them, in a way that will work for them.

Thanks again to our speakers and attendees for making these events possible – I hope you have found this summary useful!

If you're looking to hire within the housing sector market, please contact me (Amy McCabe) directly via amy.mccabe@lafosse.com or call 02079322092.

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