The technology test
Finding the right IT solution for your organisation can be a minefield. Lydia Stockdale discovers how it can be done
Procuring technology can be ‘like being a kid in a sweet shop,’ says Peter Fitzhenry, director of housing management at Warrington-based housing association Golden Gates Housing Trust.
In the weeks running up to this technology special issue, Inside Housing has been bombarded with information about new software developments and web-based tools, all of which, their producers claim, can save amazing amounts of time and money.
Tracy Harrison, marketing manager at the Northern Housing Consortium, which is running its annual housing and IT exhibition, Hitex, in four locations in England and Wales later this year, says there’s ‘a big growth in the number of IT companies focusing on the housing sector’ over recent years.
Presuming IT and procurement managers are also contacted by these companies how do they decide between them?
‘The most common reason buying software off the shelf fails is poorly defined requirements,’ explains Martin Tate, founder of technology procurement consultancy, IT Evaluation. ‘Before you go shopping, you must have a shopping list.’
‘You have to decide what you want from a corporate context, rather than being led down a path you don’t want to go down,’ agrees Steve Lamb, head of ICT and business process re-engineering at 8,800-home Golden Gates Housing Trust. ‘Stack up the business case first. Calculate how much it costs to run a service before you buy the technology, and what the situation is going to be after.’
It’s important to buy a program-me that is compatible with your existing software, he adds. Plus it’s not a good idea to purchase technology that’s overcomplicated.
Instead of making life harder, the right technology should enable housing professionals to do their jobs better. Here we focus on five types of software and web-based tools to discover whether, if chosen wisely, technology can help landlords achieve more with less. We’ve spoken to those responsible for IT and procurement at five organisations to find out why they decided to invest in certain pieces of kit.
But as Mr Tate and Mr Lamb point out, what works wonderfully for one organisation will not necessarily be so successful for another. It’s important that landlords shop around before they hand over their money.
Some pieces of software can track the progress of a housing provider’s performance against its business goals.
For example, social landlords can use technology to track delivery of their key performance indicators, or the local offers it has agreed with tenants under the Tenant Services Authority’s regulatory framework for England. An example of this type of technology is Covalent Software.
Cost: Prices for procuring Covalent Software start at £10,000. Costs vary according to a social landlord’s need and the number of users.
Savings: Peter McHugh, chief executive and founder of Covalent Software, says it’s difficult to put a figure on the amount of money the software saves. However, Marcus Evans, performance manager at One Vision Housing - which paid a £30,000 one-off purchase price in 2007 and now pays an annual maintenance charge of around £2,500 for the software - says that over a five-year period, the housing association has made £30 million in efficiency savings, including a 12 per cent reduction in management costs. ‘We feel the system has played a major part in that,’ he states.
Housing clients: More than 50 social landlords across the UK use Covalent Software, including Knowsley Housing Trust, Havebury Housing Partnership and Glasgow Housing Association.
Feedback: One Vision’s Mr Evans says one of the reasons the 11,700-home association purchased Covalent software was because it was concerned about how to monitor co-regulation under the Tenant Services Authority.
‘We needed to be answerable to tenants,’ he explains, and this meant having performance data it could access quickly and easily.
The Merseyside-based landlord has inputted more than 200 key performance indicators into the system, which it sets at the beginning of every financial year in consultation with its tenants, and checks on a monthly basis.
The software can, for example, monitor the length of time it is taking the housing association to complete repairs - it then calculates the
percentage of jobs that are completed within the organisation’s target times. Then it flags up this performance as red (bad), amber, or green.
This makes it easier for the 250 members of staff who use the system to prioritise the areas in which they are falling down. ‘The system demystifies things for staff,’ he adds. ‘They see the impact of their actions.’
iTrent is a web-based system for everything, ‘from workforce planning, [employee] attraction and selection, to pay and reward, performance management, learning and development, and retention,’ explains Richard Thomas, director of product strategy at MidlandHR. It is important to note, however, that there are other workforce planning sytems on the market.
Cost: Depends on the needs of the organisation in question
Savings: iTrent can help human resources departments identify where to cut costs and where to invest, states Mr Thomas.
Housing clients: Falkirk-based Link Group, Watford Community Housing Trust, Swan Housing Association, Isos Housing Group and Fold Housing use iTrent.
Feedback: Fiona Campbell, HR manager at Fold Housing Association, which operates across Northern Ireland, says the organisation has used iTrent since 2005. ‘Our [annual] leave request procedure has been slashed from a 10-step paper process, to three electronic steps, while the sickness/absence procedure went from nine paper steps to four electronic,’ she says. ‘iTrent’s browser-based nature enables staff to request annual leave or update their absence remotely, a major benefit considering that our staff are spread over more than 100 sites.’
Virtual Boardroom, for example, is a ‘secure web-based portal’ which allows board members and company secretaries to share and search company documentation in order to compile packs of information for board meetings.
‘The packs can be distributed to board members as sleek, hard copy documents or electronically via the portal,’ says Robin Bishop, managing director of Virtual Boardroom.
Cost: Prices start from £2,000 a year. So, does it save money in the long-run? Mr Bishop gives the example of Bron Afon Community Housing, which has saved £2,468 on the production and distribution of boardroom materials this year.
Housing clients: 21 including Cardiff Community Housing Association, Newlon Housing Trust and London & Quadrant.
Feedback: Lorraine Wapshott, PA to the company secretary at 66,000-home L&Q, has been using Virtual Boardroom for a year. ‘Board packs used to take two days to compile; now they take half a day,’ she says.
Group board and executive board attendees submit papers they want discussed in the meeting, and they are all typed in different fonts and formats, which used to have to be fixed manually. ‘Now we can click and it produces lovely packs,’ Ms Wapshott explains.
Plus papers can be slotted in at the last minute and the system automatically renumbers the pages.
‘It makes our lives so much easier,’ she says.
Invu Document Management is one product designed to help users do what it says on the tin: manage their documents, including invoices, maintenance orders, and health and safety certificates.
Any document loaded into the system can be filed and easily found again, as all documents are subject to optical character recognition so any content can be searched for.
‘Finance departments can gain control where paper documents would make this difficult if not impossible,’ says Mark Palmer, director of products and marketing at Invu.
Cost: Again, costs vary according to a housing provider’s need and the number of users. In the simplest of cases this could mean costs of under £10,000, explains Mr Palmer. Complex packages can reach six-figure sums, he adds.
Savings: ‘Having all the information available at the case worker’s fingertips massively increases operational efficiency,’ assures Mr Palmer. Some clients have seen returns on their investment within five months, he says.
Housing clients: More than 40 housing associations use Invu including Adactus Housing Group, Chester & District Housing Trust, Cosmopolitan Housing, Derwent Living and Rhondda Housing Association.
Feedback: Nigel Lee, IT manager at Rhondda Housing Association, which has used Invu document management software for the past 12 months and has bought 42 licences for individuals to access the technology, describes it as an ‘an electronic filing cabinet’. ‘It’s made a massive difference,’ he says. ‘We have the information at hand. We never lose an invoice. We were sometimes hit by penalties because invoices hadn’t been paid within a certain time, and now we’re not.’
Another benefit of the Invu system is that all the electronic files are backed up at another site every night, so if anything were to happen to Rhondda Housing’s offices, all its information is safely stored elsewhere. Plus there is less need for actual filing cabinets, says Mr Lee. ‘So there’s lots more space for our staff.’
Complete housing system
Companies including Civica offer various software modules which allow social housing providers to perform day-to-day business operations. The Civica Universal Housing System, for example, includes interactive voice response, which allows customers bidding for properties for choice-based lettings to do so out-of-hours using their phone keypad.
It also incorporates a contact manager system, which logs the details of callers, along with an electronic document management system, which can both be accessed via mobile devices such as personal digital assistants.
Cost: For a medium-sized housing association a typical cost for all training and implementation services could be £220,000 through to £350,000 for a larger portfolio, explains Glen Lewis, managing director of Civica Housing.
Savings: Mr Lewis points to an example where Civica helped one housing association, which he declines to name, deliver £2.6 million in efficiency savings over a five-year period.
Meanwhile, Peter Fitzhenry, director of housing management at stock transfer organisation Golden Gates Housing Trust, which has worked with Civica since 2004, says it has spent around £75,000 on software over the past five years and the payback has been ‘probably double’.
Housing clients: Civica supplies housing systems to around 200 housing associations including Affinity Sutton, A2 Dominion, Moat Housing Group and Barnet Homes.
Feedback: Golden Gates’ Mr Fitzhenry says interactive voice recognition has proved to do the work of around 10 operators. And the contact manager means the details of customers’ calls are logged and their details are passed on to the relevant department.
In certain situations, the contact manager system is integrated with the organisation’s telephone system, which automatically matches a tenant to one of the housing association’s customer services advisors and generates a call back to them. This system has been used to generate calls to those in rent arrears, which, in turn, has led to an improvement in the collection of arrears and debt.
Using the electronic document management, tenants’ letters can also be scanned in. Notes can then be placed on the system such as ‘this person has mobility issues, if you knock on the door, give it a bit longer for them to answer,’ he explains.