Replacing current source systems: housing specific software or generic software solutions – which should I choose and how can I resolve my data quality issues?

Housing providers are increasingly being offered replacement options beyond the traditional stable of housing management software providers. In deciding which is the best for your business this blog attempts to answer a number of frequently asked questions and describes the role an enterprise data management platform can play in supporting the migration and ensuring that data quality issues are not simply replicated in the new systems.

Why do housing providers need housing-specific software?

Housing providers don’t necessarily need housing specific software but if they are to use a generic solution they need housing knowledgeable support and experience. Whilst the balance between generic and Best of Breed software might change, in the medium term a mixed economy of software types is likely to remain and what is needed is an approach to housing specific enterprise master data management or middleware to enable benefits of both approaches to be harnessed.

Which areas of housing providers’ operations most benefit from, respectively, BoB and generic software?

These are large complex regulated businesses and the software they use has evolved from the necessary heavy processing requirements of calculating rents, service charges and managing repairs integrated around a unified database and data architecture. There is a risk in moving away from the tried and tested solution here (remember TSB’s big switch-on) but also an opportunity for Housing Associations to digitise services and access generic systems for say CRM. These latter are often built on top of existing systems as there are limited case studies replacing entire housing management systems with for example, Dynamics despite it being around for over 15 years.

In terms of the categories below, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of, respectively, BoB and generic software?

Procurement

In terms of procurement BoB software providers can, reassuringly, show you customers who are already using what you will get, whereas generic software can offer you, tantalisingly, exactly what you ask for. Given the lifecycle of a new Housing Management system has historically been 10 years or more the evaluation of whole-life ownership costs and time to value need to be given as much weight as upfront costs and flexibility. Given the stakes it seems crucial to get independent advice at this stage over the capability of not only the software but also that of the receiving organisation.

Implementation

If the procurement exercise has been undertaken diligently then it is not likely to be the technology that is a barrier to implementation for either Best of Breed or generic solutions. Neither is it the effort expended but it is more likely the governance and bringing together of people on the project. Here the presence of housing knowledgeable people is more likely to bring disparate parts of the organisation together and be able to anticipate and effectively plan the implementation and it is undoubtedly advantageous to have been through the cycle previously as anyone who has built an Ikea wardrobe will testify.

Integration

By implementing an enterprise data management platform before attempting to change the core operational systems will significantly reduce the risk and complexity of resolving the “cat’s cradle” of integrating a new system. Further it will give you the opportunity to resolve data quality issues before migrating the poor data on the old systems to the new systems. Here using a housing specific product will offer significant benefits over a generic data warehousing solution in terms of time to value, cost and data quality improvements. Independence of this software is essential to ensure true source system agnosticism and future proofing. In addition, new housing management systems need to adopt open (and free) API policy, something that should be underpinned at the procurement stage: especially worthwhile considering what will happen to those systems that are not replaced and how they are maintained.

Functionality

Functionality is the key question to ask and document ahead of any procurement exercise. It is important to know what business problems you currently have and will have in the future and why you want to do something about it. This should be documented and appended to any contract and used to ensure you don’t end up with a long term “temporary minimum viable product.”

There is an advantage to BoB software in that you benefit from the accrued knowledge of other users this shouldn’t be used to lock in to a particular architecture, another case for a housing specific data management platform although there might be a faster rate of innovation from generic suppliers and arguably a wider accrued knowledge of users trying to undertake similar processes in other industries. Also thinking through the consequences of what happens if your needs change or if the sun sets on your chosen solution which may be more likely and with bigger consequences with a generic solution.

Cost

Generic software solutions look like they square the circle of offering exactly what you want at a mass market price or at least a price that meets the financial business case of making a change. Any such pricing needs to be risk-adjusted for the less certain time to value, cost of on-going change and the accrued technical debt embedded in such systems when the vendors, implementors and internal champions have moved on. However, as the underlying assets are likely to outlive the systems, the data about those assets is also likely to outlive those systems and the value of accessing and interrogating this data to the organisation may outweigh any concerns over whole-life costs.

Ongoing support, management & maintenance

This is one of those things that everybody wants but no one likes to pay for. The promptness and expertise of the response will to some extent shape perceptions of the system and here there should be an advantage with BoB systems but if this is the point at which you learn what the system actually does versus what you expected it to do it can be a painful reality check. Especially if resolving that necessitates paying for a consultant to diagnose the problem and then paying again to derive a solution. The advantage of a BoB solution is that it will anticipate and provide or plan to provide certain changes whereas a generic system will require the housing provider to specify what is required.

To what extent does opting for either BoB or generic software dictate housing providers’ future technology plans?

Generic software is unlikely to restrict future technology plans but BoB can lock you into a closed ecosystem where subsequent decisions are probably not Best of Breed.

Are you aware of any housing provider(s) pursuing either a BoB or a generic software route?

There are a number of organisations that have awarded contracts to both generic software e.g. Bromford for Dynamics or Best of Breed e.g. Falkirk Council using NPS or Stockport Homes using Civica CX. Each could be argued as pursuing a particular route but it is just as likely each route will lead to a destination with elements of both types and the quickest route will incorporate enterprise data management at the core.

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