Small, perfectly formed and scalable: entry level housing management

Chris McLaughlin, managing director of MIS AMS talks about entry level housing management systems and why laying the foundations for growth in a smaller housing association will help in the long term.

There are over 1000 housing associations in England alone that have less than 1000 properties in their portfolio. These organisations are relatively small but they’re growing. You might think that their size would preclude them from implementing the kind of large-scale housing management technology that an association with 50,000+ properties might have. And historically you’d be right, to a point – but that’s changing with the availability of entry-level ‘lite’ systems that can implement and grow with the organisation. Regardless of the number of staff or the size of their estate, smaller HA’s are implementing technology to drive the efficiencies they need to grow and they know is required in future to sustain that growth.

These smaller HA’s work within their local area, have close relationships with their residents and offer a personalised service. It’s what their tenants want from them – the ability to interact personally face to face on the door step or in a near by office where they can drop in, but also via more millennial methods of communication – email, text or a portal. They typically have between 1 and 25 employees working for them and often their staff live in the same locality, know their tenants personally and work in a number of different roles across the organisation. They know the local geography like the back of their hand, understand the issues they face and the drivers for change – and know the local authority well. However, from a digital strategy point of view, it can be challenging to balance the cost of technology with the efficiencies gained. 

Data and workflow

From a technology point of view these smaller organisations have relatively little data by comparison to their much larger counterparts. The data is often held in multiple spreadsheets or in applications that are unable to scale with their growth. They’re ‘making do’ on a daily basis, compromising and using the systems they have due to pressures of cost and fear of the unknown. The perception is often that a housing management system is costly to implement, sustain and support. That it can deal only with complicated workflows and is therefore a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and from an implementation point of view, it takes months of consultancy time to implement – more expense.

Not so! In reality an entry level system is affordable, is mostly out-of-the-box, takes as little as 11 days to implement due to the much smaller amount of data and the uncomplicated workflows, and has the ability to scale-up to sledgehammer status with time and growth of the organisation – if a sledgehammer is what’s required. In many cases smaller HA’s have no plans to scale to thousands of properties, but want the efficiencies that an HMS brings to the organisation – especially mobile working. The stripped down version of enterprise software has predefined restrictions within it that are much better suited to smaller housing associations but with the functionality that a smaller organisation needs to run an efficient and compliant business and maintain their housing stock.

Spring Housing

Spring Housing is a registered housing charity with around 500 units of accommodation across the West Midlands. It installed a new entry-level version of MIS AMS’s ActiveH in 2016 – ActiveH Lite – and hasn’t looked back. As a relatively new charity working with people affected by homelessness, Spring Housing didn’t have masses of data to migrate to a new system, so the ‘lighter’ system can scale and grow with the organisation from the outset. It has provided a hub of knowledge for its 25 employees as well as ensuring there is an audit trail to demonstrate it’s operating within the agreed terms of its contracted suppliers. Previously, it had been operating on Excel spread sheets to manage its properties, the rents, repairs and different services it provides to tenants but knew that long term this wasn’t sustainable.

Spring is a growing organisation that required a housing management system that could grow with it. The association has no plans to become enormous like some of the big providers, so didn’t feel it needed the full functionality of some of the more expensive housing management systems. The entry level system fits its requirements – it’s flexible and provides scalability – and delivers the holistic suite encompassing CRM, rent accounting, reporting, repairs and in future, mobile working. It can also tweak the software to tailor it to the different delivery service areas – 80 to 90% of its estate is supported housing where it provides one-on-one service provision to the tenants. It’s about starting as you mean to go on and delivers much of the functionality of the larger system but scaled down to suit a smaller, but growing association. Having the ability to start small and put the right foundations in place will mean that Spring Housing is saving itself some major headaches in terms of data migration in the future. Once it has the foundations established, then it can scale up and go mobile as it grows.

Benefits

For smaller associations requiring an entry level system it’s often not the cost of the system that drives them to buy it – it’s the efficiencies it creates. As any organisation grows there are many more added complications that must be better managed. The technologies implemented over time, or the systems used thus far such as Excel spreadsheets no longer do what is required and the critical turning point is reached where they must evaluate how much compromise they have each day. This is the key stage in the evolution of technology in smaller housing associations. When you’ve compromised on how you do things for long enough its time to consider implementing an entry-level system to adjust the underlying workflows so that you can dynamically change what you need to do and how you do it.

Bringing together the disparate systems across the organisation also provides a holistic view – no more cobbling together the data needed to better understand numbers or trends. The availability of real-time information delivers the data required to better manage the organisation but also removes the administration time and helps redeploy staff back to where they can add most value – on the tenants doorstep. The personalised service that smaller housing associations have always been better able to deliver in their locality is even more personalised with the right information to hand, and streamlines the processes both in terms of staff and estate.