The future is here

by Chris Shaw

Innovations in technology are transforming the way housing associations are doing business. New developments in IT, mobile working, the Internet of Things and Robotic Process Automation offer new opportunities to be more efficient and deliver a better service to customers.

Shifting to digital methods of communication, for example, means you can deal with many customer queries around the clock and in any language they choose. The Internet of Things, meanwhile, has the potential to vastly improve how you manage your assets. And Robotic Process Automation could greatly reduce the burden of administrative tasks. The benefits are there for the taking.

But making sense of what's on the horizon can be daunting. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and worry you're lagging behind.

Sometimes it's about cutting through the jargon and focusing on what technology can do for you: how it can help you do things better, quicker and cheaper.

So what's the direction of travel you can expect in the next few years? Here's our top 10 things to look out for in the brave new digital world that is fast becoming a reality …

1.Communication will be mostly digital. You'll be interacting less and less with customers on the phone and instead digital channels will become the norm. Whether customers use a mobile app, social media or interact with intelligent chat bots through your website, they will be less inclined to call you when there's a problem or if they're looking for information. And that of course means the potential to reduce your 'cost per contact'.

2.Digital communication will extend beyond just rented housing provision. Care and support services, new homes for sale, or even your interactions with third party organisations such as suppliers, will all be shifting online. Housing management systems will also be adapted to keep up with this. Many organisations we work with are innovating to develop new ways to foster digital communication. For example, some are developing low code solutions using platforms like Microsoft PowerApps and Outsystems to quickly develop mobile applications and portal solutions for both the internal workforce, suppliers and customers.

3.The days of manual form filling and updating databases are numbered. At present, we still come across housing associations which take an analogue approach to customer contact. Information is dutifully typed up by a call handler, emailed to the relevant team or contact, before being manually inputted into the system. This is inefficient, time consuming and laborious and thanks to Robotic Process Automation it is on the way out. For example, customers can now use online forms, or an app, to tell you a repair needs carrying out at their property. Robotic Process Automation means all relevant information is immediately put into all the systems which need to know about it. The software can even automatically generate a repair visit complete with appointment time for the customer. The first member of staff involved will be the repair operative turning up at the property.

4.Streamlined and standardised systems. Having multiple systems which are not compatible and result in duplication and inefficiency is simply not sustainable. And the good news is it just doesn't have to be this way. Housing management systems now offer housing associations opportunities to bring all their data together in one place, giving teams a single and comprehensive view of all a providers' customers and assets. This is one of the most obvious ways which technology can help housing associations to achieve greater operational efficiency and effectiveness. And it has the potential to foster and drive innovation. Enterprise Resource Planning solutions like Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Salesforce, for example, are already being more widely used by housing providers. These powerful software applications offer the opportunity to integrate activities including financials, assets, operations, reporting and human resources. The crucial thing about these flexible systems is they can change and adapt as your needs and circumstances change.

5.Customer journeys that are just … better. All this means your customers will have a better experience of interacting with you. They won't find themselves struggling to get through to call centres, having to repeat the same information over and over and finding it difficult to get their problem solved or their needs met. They will enjoy a simple and well connected journey. Real world digital innovations, available now, mean we can minimise the number of customer “touch points". The customer will know that if they request something through an online form or an app, their request will find its way to the right person and be acted upon. It's that simple.

6.Anytime, any place, anywhere. Your staff will be increasingly mobile, able to work from home or at the office or in a customer's property. This flexibility will benefit your staff - many of whom will welcome the escape from the 9-5 or the commute to the office. The good news is the technology to enable this mobile working is becoming more accessible and less expensive. Many of the housing associations we work with, for example, are exploiting the potential of Microsoft Office 365 to build their own, bespoke, mobile working solutions.

7.You'll have a better understanding of your customers. Data has the power to give you much greater intelligence - and to act on that in ways which improve your customers' lives. For those who care for older or other vulnerable people, for example, technology is already being deployed to keep people safe. Other tech can even be utilised to make sure properties are not over occupied - with the ability to tell you exactly how many people seem to be living in any given property. Systems are increasingly becoming available to bring all this critical data into one place, improving the way you can interpret it and act on it.

8.Homes and other assets will become smarter. Appliances and devices in your properties will increasingly be online and able to communicate directly with you thanks to the Internet of Things. If emergency lighting, for example, fails in a communal area you'll automatically be alerted and the process for scheduling in a repair will kick in without the need for human intervention. Ditto dozens of other assets you are responsible for maintaining from gas boilers to extractor fans. The potential to improve responsive repairs services, both from a cost and customer service point of view, are enormous.

9.Very little data will be physically stored on your own premises. The future of data storage as many of you will know is in the cloud. Why buy server hardware, and pay for the cost of premises to house and maintain it, and upgrading it every few years, when you can buy remote data storage space which adapts flexibly to your changing needs and circumstances? This is genuinely the proverbial no brainer!

10.Your workforce will be a digital workforce. Having staff with the skills and knowledge to work effectively in this new digital operating environment will be essential. Your staff will need to see this new way of working as the new normal. All of this will feed inevitably into all aspects of HR: from recruitment and retention to CPD and training. The future digital organisation will be one in which people actively share skills, learning and innovation. We are even seeing some forward thinking housing associations already employing a dedicated member of the team responsible for digital innovation.

Chris Shaw, October 2019

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