Platform for housing: doing it right once VS wrong many times

By Richard Sage - on 05/03/2014

A challenge to the sector from Richard Sage, an enterprise architect working in housing.

We all do the same things, let’s stop pretending we are unique and start pooling our resources to multiply the value we can deliver to our customers. What would a ‘platform for housing’ look like?

Housing associations are funny things:

We all do the same things.

The hierarchy of our customers needs doesn’t change much from organisation to organisation.

We often do the same things differently.

We all do the same things with differing degrees of outcome and efficiency.

Example? Recognise some of these terms?

  • Mobile working
  • Digital
  • Online self services
  • Multi/Omni channel
  • Channel shift
  • Customer relationship management
  • Business intelligence
  • Data quality

(the list goes on and on)

We do all do the same things.

We organise ourselves similarly, we support processes with a similar information system architecture. If (as I have) you view the pattern of the architecture of different housing associations side by side, often the only things that change are the names of the suppliers providing the systems.

We all fish in a small pool of suppliers.  From talking to peers within the industry the general consensus is a feeling that ranges from disenchantment, through resentment to outright animosity towards the incumbent technology suppliers serving the sector.

Just as I believe social housing in general is ripe for disruption (in fact we see government policy is already exerting a transformative if not disruptive influence on the industry, but that’s a topic for another post), so too the technology supplier landscape is also ripe for disruption.

There are two trends I’m aware of within our sector (other than moaning about incumbent suppliers)

1) Some providers are dipping their toes into building their own systems or looking outside of traditional housing applications e.g. towards CRM based approaches

2) Recently there has been a move by larger associations to look to ERP to ‘solve the solved problems’ related to business operation

Its easy to snipe at both these approaches:

1) might be driven by a naivety about the complexity and costs associated with such an undertaking;

For 2) its the fact that some of these are big, multi-year, multi-million pound, big bang implementations with a far-off ROI

Both fail to address the bigger point – that too much of our technology in housing simply seeks to digitise business approaches that have been fundamentally unquestioned over decades, when what we need is technology driven transformation of the way we do business - not least around the way we use data across everything we do.

But picking at these initiatives sort of misses the point.  Rather they are symptoms of a problem that has been bugging me for a while and which I’ll try and reduce down to a few questions:

Q1: Why are we attempting to solve the same problems individually?

Q2: Why can’t we solve some of these problems once, for all?

Q3: Isn’t there value in pooling our resources?

Q4: What would a common ‘Platform for Housing’ look like and how could we achieve it?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I think they are questions are should ask ourselves.

What do I think a ‘Platform for Housing’ would look like?

I haven’t got a definition in my head yet, but in a sentence it would be something along the lines of:

A multi-tenanted, cloud based platform for use by #ukhousing organisations to deliver better services, more efficiently by solving the common problems around #ukhousing information system capability and maximising the value of sharing data assets.

Some principles of the platform might be:

1)    Community driven: not quite ‘For housing by housing’ but a platform that is developed and evolved for the good of the housing community with the community supporting (through usage, funding, resource)

2)    Pooled data to maximise insight: whilst each housing providers core data would be sacrosanct, all could benefit from mashing subsets of their data with the community, imagine turning patch insight into national insight

3)    Born in the cloud:  designed for scalability, taking advantage of cloud economics

4)    API all the things:

The platform would not be just a new silo, it would be designed from the ground up to enable interoperability because of the recognition that any new system needs to be part of a wider ecosystem not the ecosystem.  In fact, current technology providers could go a long way towards improving where we are now by more effectively opening up systems too often closed to the outside world for reasons of cynical commerciality (but that’s another blog for another time).

5) Human centred: The development of the platform is not just driven from the perspective of business efficiency or ‘what we can do’, but those perspectives combined with an understanding of customer need.

I’m really conscious that this post may not be very coherent, but lots of conversations with people in our industry finally spurred me to try and nail something down. We can see some of these ideas being explored tentatively at HACT through their Housing Big Data collaboration and emerging work on cloud based next generation housing management emerging from UCL

My hope is, in putting some sort of sketch down that, through discussion, interrogation, argument and collaboration we might get to something coherent; that there may be an opportunity for our community to help itself do better for our customers through rethinking our relationship with technology. I appreciate that tech is only part of that story, but its a start….

Please get in touch on twitter @bakedidea

And I’ll be hosting a workshop on the “Housing platform of the future” at HouseParty in Manchester in June – follow @Hseparty for information on tickets and programme as soon as they come out.

The original blog post can be found at http://bakedidea.tumblr.com/post/78245873527/platform-for-housing-doing-it-right-once-vs-wrong-many

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