The digital revolution has the power to profoundly change lives for the better, but the housing and care sector is notoriously behind the curve. Yet when it comes to embracing change, it isn’t really about the technology at all
In association with
THERE’S a growing sense of frustration with the established software providers serving the housing sector, if the discussion at Northern Housing’s latest leaders’ roundtable event is anything to go by.
Indeed, there was talk of housing providers going it alone, in some respects, to develop aspects of their own systems and software in-house. This may seem like a curious notion, for a sector traditionally seen as being slow to take onboard new technology, but it is also representative of an industry brainstorming the possibilities.
Well, that’s very much what the roundtables are all about. On this occasion, the theme was “using digital technology to transform the lives of residents”. The topic very much had housing and care in mind; not just in the sense of what the technology can do for the sector and its residents. The discussion was an opportunity to share thoughts on why the sector is slow to adopt, explore barriers to implementing technology, and a chance to share insights and experience.
That’s the thing about the sector; while it is generally regarded as being ‘behind’, it’s also patchy and uneven; some are more behind than others. It’s a reflection, in a sense, of the commonality housing providers share, but also their individual origins, histories and circumstances.
The event was held in association with technology business Appello, once again at the Manchester Chop House, and it brought together a selection of senior leaders from housing providers across the North. A slap-up meal, a wide-ranging discussion, ensured nobody left hungry.
For a sector traditionally seen as slow to change, there was no sense of ‘luddism’ around the table, although there was a degree of healthy scepticism towards any notion that technology offers a panacea. Even so, guests certainly had no illusions on where the sector sits technologically.
“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do as far as technology investment is concerned,” said Lee Sugden, of Salford-based Salix Homes, who chaired the discussion. As he pointed out, at five years old, it is the newest among housing associations born of large-scale voluntary stock transfer, so the legacy of its former parent local authority remains very much a part of its DNA.
“From a technology and a residents’ point of view, personally, I think we as Salix, and the sector, are quite a way off the curve as far as customer expectations are and how society is using technology,” he added.
The sentiment – dare we say confession? – was shared by several guests around the table. The reasons are many, of course. The debate around the Chop House table are doubtless replicated throughout the sector across the country.
“It’s obvious we are late adopters when it comes to digital. We’re exploring, but I think the biggest barrier is not the technology – it’s thought,” said John Chambers of Stockport Homes.
“It’s [about] understanding the commercial drive of why it really matters. It does feel like an insular sector. It talks about a lot of things, but it never really acts about a lot of things, and with a captive customer base in the main, we’re not being pushed by those customers to deliver more. The real incentives come from the commercial drivers; you need a trigger point to change behaviour, change technology.”
Jenny Chapman, from ForViva, said: “There’s no burning platform for social housing, and I think that’s the challenge.”
Unlike the big tech companies, or commercial businesses in other sectors, social housing providers are not engaged in competition – at least not in an existential sense. The demand of surviving in a market doesn’t apply in the same way, so there isn’t quite the pressure to remain at the top of their game.
Of course, if we’re talking about social purpose and the values of not-for-profit social housing then we’re really talking about an entirely different game. The pressure arises from another source: the expectations of tenants and residents – especially the younger generation – who increasingly live and breathe digital. The same may be said of younger blood entering the industry.
Chambers says he is looking forward to this “new blood” coming into the sector, bringing with it a new perspective. As the discussion explored, a lot of the mentality of the housing sector was devised in an earlier age, and while not set in stone, it becomes people’s second nature. This is as true in private sector business ventures, as it is in public or third sector organisations.
It’s probably worth remembering that the digital revolution is barely 25 years old; the smartphone revolution is yet to hit its teens. We forget that many of us were educated and trained in an era where much of this was but informed speculation and science fiction, yet to reveal its fullest potential. Hardly surprising, then, organisations, like people, might struggle to keep up.
That brings us to a point Chapman raised late in the discussion. As she explained, her organisation is working to develop apps to engage with tenants, but as she outlined, it’s one thing to design, build, test and implement a digital portal that is efficient and easy to use – and quite another for tenants to be actually able to access it.
It’s not just a question of age serving as a barrier to the uptake of unfamiliar technology; it’s a stark reality of life on low incomes for a good many of the people the sector houses. Effectively, they exist “outside of that digital space”. The barriers include the age of people’s mobile phones, the reliance on pay-as you-go rather than contracts.
“We’re actually creating apps for people, but they can’t access them, so how do you connect people first?” Chapman said. “These are people who cannot afford to buy a food shop never mind go and pay £30 a month for broadband. It’s a fourth utility to me. WiFi is absolutely critical.”
This is an area where she thinks the housing sector can work together to combine its clout, to discuss with digital service providers to develop and deliver affordable packages for tenants. There’s a lot of ‘devil in the detail’ to creating such connectivity, but it’s less a question of technology, than one of guidelines and principles – and will.
Strange as it may at first seem, technology is almost a side issue in these discussions. Time and time again, it came back to processes and procedures, mindset, operational culture, as the main challenges to making the most of technology.
That’s a point picked up on by Appello’s chief executive, Tim Barclay; adding that the language we use to discuss the technology can itself be an inhibitor. “The discussion about technology is absolutely irrelevant,” he said. “If you say to an elderly or a vulnerable person ‘I’d like to put a 60-inch piece of technology in your house, it’s super smart, it will make your life a lot better’. They’ll say, ‘oh, I don’t know, that sounds big, it sounds scary’. Say, ‘I’d like to put a television in your house’ you’d struggle to find an elderly or vulnerable person who wouldn’t say bring it on.”
Sometimes, “we find our own barriers”, said Chloe Christian, of First Choice Homes Oldham. Technology is applied to achieve outcomes defined by a business’s procedures, which are simple in themselves, but then we overcomplicate matters and stumble over the exceptions, she suggested.
“I think that’s where we end up losing sight, sometimes,” she said. “Actually, the process for 95% of people is quite straightforward; [but] we kind of build things around exceptions and I think that’s why we don’t find solutions. When you’ve got the commercial focus, you cut that out. Because we’ve got the human side, we focus on the care and support need, rather than the process.”
The point resonated with Barclay’s experience. “One of the biggest inhibitors of innovation is taking that view that it probably won’t work for me,” he said. Rather than accepting best practice and absorbing it, there’s a tendency to look for reasons why that best practice won’t work elsewhere. He added: “I’m not saying it’s necessarily a conscious approach, but it’s a subliminal thought process that’s hindering to some extent the germination of really great innovation, and innovation in procedure as much as in technology.”
For Andrew Rafferty, of Weaver Vale Housing Trust, it’s the technology itself that can sometimes be the inhibitor to innovation and the embrace of the digital revolution. As the discussion entailed, it’s a multi-layered aspect to the topic, one that spans not only the last quarter century of social housing history, but also of the tech revolution itself.
In gist, it can take months to research, procure, design and implement systems, train staff, and figure out their quirks; all the more so, the larger the organisation. A lot of time, resource and money is invested in such upgrades. If the experience proves less than desirable – it doesn’t work properly, say – then it’s bound to breed a certain hesitancy and scepticism about tech’s promise.
Mergers between housing associations to create bigger group organisations in recent years have also presented their own challenges, with a hotch-potch of legacy systems being used within the same organisation. These may prove nigh on impossible to integrate, but a nightmare to replace in a timely manner, given they are essentially the nervous system and memory of the corporate body. Technology changes at such a speed these days that who can be sure the solution will be long-lasting enough to justify the disruption.
Yet, sooner or later, those systems will – and do – need an upgrade; there was no doubt of that among guests at the roundtable. That’s not just from the point of view of improving day-to-day operations, but also in terms of harnessing the potential of digital technology – the profound power of data – to transform business and improve lives.
“There is so much opportunity to improve people’s lives and, in work, [their] wellbeing, through a smart use of technology,” Barclay said.
Nobody would disagree, but realising the change in a systematic way throughout the sector, is clearly easier said than done. At the end of the day, it’s not a question of technology – but human relationships and culture.
And on that score, as Sugden said, there is no “magic answer”.
# # #
Tim Barclay, chief executive, Appello
Iain Hockings, head of marketing, Appello
Lee Sugden, chief executive, Salix Homes
Suzanne Bullock, assistant director – neighbourhoods, Jigsaw Homes Group
Chloe Christian, executive director corporate services, First Choice Homes Oldham
Julian Massel, director of technology, Trafford Housing Trust
John Chambers, head of IT, Stockport Homes Group
Jenny Chapman, director of innovation and excellence, ForViva Group
Andrew Rafferty, executive director of technology and business improvement, Weaver Vale Housing Trust
Mark Cantrell, editor, Northern Housing, Crosby Associates Media