How many times have we heard that digitalisation will transform our lives, only to find that the promise of digital nirvana has feet of clay? Colin Sales, Managing Director of 3C Consultants would suggest otherwise: it's not the technology at fault but the way it is implemented and embraced by the recipient organisation.

Again, this may sound familiar but Colin is a fervent advocate of the 'keep it simple' principle and, in the work 3C has done with a number of housing associations, has proved that digitalising services and operations does not have to be a painful process providing the project is approached methodically, and keeping the objective of the exercise firmly in sight.

Executive teams need data

3C Consultants are IT specialists for the social housing sector, advising on IT strategy and the effective utilisation of IT systems. The 3C team has been working with housing associations, the length and breadth of Britain, helping them to transform the way they operate by 'going digital'. Although the move online is universal, it has particular resonance for housing associations which are coming under ever greater scrutiny both from government and the HCA; as Colin notes: "The emphasis in the housing sector has shifted from being about personalities and relationships, to governance and value for money, which means that boards are finding themselves much more accountable for commercially-driven performance. Now that the HCA is benchmarking associations against one another, executive teams need to understand their organisation intimately. For this they need data – and integrated IT systems are the best way to deliver this".

Managing cultural change is crucial

Colin outlined the key principles he and his team apply to help the transformation process. At the heart, as with most things in life, is leadership. The transformation process will not happen unless the CEO and senior leadership team give their unequivocal support to the project and actively lead from the front. An essential element of the process is managing cultural change, requiring a shift in outlook, a re-examination of how people work, and a desire to work better and smarter.

"Without getting their staff on board, even the most enthusiastic CEO will struggle to bring about effective change; it's therefore important to share the digital vision for the organisation with everyone at the outset and then celebrate successes along the way, however small". Colin acknowledges that automation can be the elephant in the room, in other words, staff worry about job security. But in his experience, this is far from the truth: "Automation can free up staff to do, frankly, often more interesting jobs. Once you've automated things like maintenance requests, the rental lifecycle, and managing rent payments, staff can be liberated to support tenants and the business more proactively, for instance helping with debt problems and social exclusion issues, or spotting missed revenue opportunities, or even developing and managing new ones". He added that automation has enabled one large association to close all their offices to public access. It now deals with customers at their convenience in their homes and communities, enabling more flexible and responsive deployment of staff who can provide digital assistance where necessary to help and support tenants to move online.

Internet access improves social inclusion

"Use of the internet is much more widespread than most housing associations appreciate; in fact, it may surprise you that the fastest growing group on the internet are the over 65s. Internet access improves social inclusion for many individuals. Not only can it save them money, it makes accessing services much easier and facilitates learning and entertainment. Many tenants who struggle initially will want to get online given the right encouragement, or they will ask friends or relatives to transact online on their behalf. One of our customers has segmented their customer base and believes that 78% of their tenants has the ability to transact with them online, 12% will if they initially get a lot of support, leaving only 10% that will continue to need traditional forms of contact".

69% digital access is via smartphone

"The real key to getting traction with tenants is their smartphone. Smartphones now outsell toothbrushes and are the gateway to the majority of online access. Reports are demonstrating that on average 69% of access is now via smartphone and this is growing. Data accessed via Google Analytics, free of charge, has revealed that, within the sector, women aged between 40 and 50 are commonly the most active group; and that most online access occurs between 7:00am and 8:00am. If you want to forecast how your average customer will want to deal with you, just look at yourself in the mirror. Most people will choose to go digital providing its quick and easy. The whole process must be approached and implemented logically from a customer's prospective. If you would choose to use the service yourself, then so will they".

Use incentives to increase online engagement

Understanding human nature is another key component of the transformation process: motivating people to change their attitudes, and the way they do things. Success is directly related to how you promote the service and importantly, incentivise its use. Colin highlighted a pilot being run by one housing association with the blessing of the Department for Work and Pensions, in which tenants received discounts on their rents of up to £20 a month provided they went paper-free, transacted online and paid on time. This kind of incentive, along with an attractive, easy-to-use customer portal, has meant that 59% of their customer transactions are now carried out online and this continues to grow.

Don't try and reinvent the wheel

When you implement online services making sure that the different elements of the project are correctly prioritised is also crucial: "Housing associations need to understand what gives them the best return on investment, and where 'quick wins' can be achieved so that both internal and external stakeholders can swiftly see the real financial benefit as well as service improvement. To measure success you need to know your starting point, so carry out an initial performance benchmarking exercise which will help you to map your journey and celebrate the progress you're making."

As Colin emphasised, the transformation process will be facilitated by the creation of a digital vision: "Take advantage of other organisations' experience and talk to professional advisers who have implemented programmes for various associations and know what 'good' looks like and how it is best achieved. You will not be pioneers so don't try and reinvent the wheel".

Ultimately, if you get it right, you will achieve more efficient service delivery; a better, more convenient tenant experience; increased job satisfaction for staff; savings that will allow you to demonstrate value for money, whilst also supporting you to meet regulatory requirements. Those associations still weighing up the pros and cons of embarking on this transformation process should be reassured that there are now many great examples of well-integrated online services that provide accurate, accessible, secure data to support strategic decision making. And, as Colin was quick to point out, all sizes of association can benefit even if it requires collaboration and joint initiatives. They can still take advantage of economies of scale while retaining their independence. "The digital tide is running in one direction; those associations still wavering need to know that there is plenty of support out there and numerous examples of good practice. They just need to take the plunge".

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