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On merging and data cultures

Cultural fit and certainty of delivering benefits is a key challenge when looking at whether a social housing landlord should merge or remain independent. Whilst cultural fit is understandably not easy to model, operational efficiencies and other intended benefits are also difficult to forecast. There is no shortage of data in housing associations but harnessing and unifying this data in any merged organisation necessitates navigating the standardisation of different data sources, data flows and data practices.

In this recent article from Social Housing magazine Peter Luke provides some guidance on the steps required starting with the culture, the strategy but also making sure the opportunity to make a clean break rather than replicate existing ways of doing things is realised.

The recent announcement from Sanctuary and Southern Housing that they would not, in fact, be joining forces, has somewhat deflated the bubble of mergers announced this year. There is genuine uncertainty over getting the balance right between building badly needed new homes whilst maintaining and improving existing stock and services. 

The stated reasons in the case of Southern and Sanctuary, that ‘the combination would not deliver all of the intended benefits within the planned timescale’ underlines the complexity of deciding whether merger is the right solution to challenges posed by the current policy environment.

Whilst cultural fit is understandably not easy to model, operational efficiencies and other intended benefits will have likewise been difficult to forecast. There is no shortage of data in housing associations but harnessing and unifying it to support forecasts for meeting white paper obligations and net zero carbon investment is a major challenge. To do this for more than one organisation with different data cultures and practices and provide committed operational efficiencies would take even the Imperial College Covid modelling team some time to sort out.

So, how can those social landlords thinking about merger navigate the thorny business of standardising different data sources, data flows and data practices? Here are four steps to consider:

1. Start with the culture: 
A merger will require new ways of working – it’s the people that will make this work. Delivering all the components of a housing service is a complex business. It follows that the importance of being able to accurately manipulate data arising from such transactions and interactions is crucial and leadership around the value of data must come from the top. For example, a lot of time and effort is spent training staff about GDPR. There is less training about the sources and uses of data within organisations and the fact that well-curated spreadsheets within silos won’t necessarily help to deliver the objectives of a merger.   

2. Build back better:
One lesson from the pandemic is that it is possible to implement new ways of working. Whilst people are comfortable with the technology they know – even if it is clunky and outdated – it is changeable. Post-merger, maintaining onerous, manual reporting methods is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of a newly combined workforce. A merger provides the ideal opportunity to make the break.

3. Develop a data strategy:
The reality of a merger is that there will be two groups of essential systems that probably won’t mix, and an exit will be required from one, or possibly both. Even before a merger is considered, your data strategy should define how such migrations could be accommodated. This is good practice as a lot of data will outlive the systems on which it is hosted. So, if your IT team is currently crushed under the existing mass of software, spending their days developing convoluted workarounds on outdated systems, it’s worth asking, how would they manage a migration?  A really good strategy will map out the infrastructure needed to move large quantities of data across many digital platforms, ensuring systems are flexible enough for the future.

4. Focus on residents:
Whichever data systems or platforms you ultimately use, the most important question is whether the newly merged infrastructure delivers for your tenants. When they phone up to report a repair and then want to discuss their latest rent bill, do your service centre staff have to back out of one system and go into another or transfer the call to a different department? Research from the Housing Quality Network indicates that only a third of tenants who had experienced a merger felt it had delivered on its promises. The right data systems and infrastructure will empower staff, giving them intelligence from transaction histories to identify friction points and help them better connect and understand tenants in the future.

Cultural fit is clearly an important consideration that will determine the success or otherwise of a merger. Whilst a merger can be a useful agent for change in an organisation, this shouldn’t distract from the fact that it is people’s behaviour that determines the gap between the values and vision of an organisation and the experience of those working in it and receiving services. Given the complexity of delivering housing services, access to good quality data is essential to understanding how best to bridge that gap.

Peter Luke is Commercial Director of Illumar

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