On Innovation, bread & butter transactions, and digital leadership.

This was originally written as a guest post for another blog, but it didn’t get published there in the end, so I figured it was time to recycle, adapt and use it here.

Whilst there might have been lots of heated debate on #dronegate , it strikes me that there’s lots of folks violently agreeing with each other that its good to provide customers with option to do lots of their transactions their Housing Association online.  Now call me cynical, but this really isn’t innovation.  I bet loads of folks who work in our organisations, and live in our properties, have been “doing stuff” online for years: whether its buying on amazon, selling on ebay or paying their council tax.  Its not new.

bread and butter instagramBut as a sector, we’ve been pretty slow to offer our core bread& butter transactions online: paying rent, reporting a repair, checking the status of a repair – that sort of stuff.  Some HAs have got those options – but by no means all.  And for those that do have them, how well do they work on a mobile phone?  What’s the user-experience like – if you were a customer, would you actually use them?  Does “pay your rent” whisk the customer off to differently branded payment gateway that doesn’t look like it really belongs to the HA?

And  inside the organisation, does the “report a repair” functionality hook into the underlying system that books an appointment, or does it merely generate an email that lands in the repairs contact centre inbox for someone to deal with manually?  Can customers update their contact details online and have it synchronise back to the underlying system?

I’ve been knocking around the sector’s technology suppliers for more years than I care to remember, and I don’t believe any of them have got a decent online services offer for customers yet.  They’ve got plenty of expertise in building big internal IT systems that meet in-house needs (albeit to varying extents… but that’s a whole other debate), but I’m yet to be convinced that they’ve got the skills in designing user experiences for our customers.  We might be able to train a few hundred staff how to use their kit, but we’re not going to train customers how to do it.  Designing a user-experience to be as intuitive as online shopping takes specialist skills and a whole new way of working.

I often wonder if online services are a bit “homeless” inside our organisations.  Websites get commissioned by Communications & Marketing teams.  IT systems tend to be commissioned by IT & Housing teams.  Online services get lost in the gaps in between.  If they’re left to Comms teams, there’s the risk of precious little integration with the back office.  If they’re left to IT teams alone, there’s the risk of a regular Jo(e) not understanding how to use them.

If HAs are going to deliver great online services for customers, they need a digital strategy (not just an IT strategy), and a good dollop of digital leadership, starting at the top.  Does your board skills matrix include digital strategy expertise, alongside the more familiar financial or development expertise.  The Housing team need a clear digital vision of what they want to deliver online for customers.  They need the skills and expertise to commission it, in partnership with the Communications colleagues (who’ll get the web) and the IT colleagues (who’ll get the tech).

Properly valuing digital and service design skills will be a key component to successful organisations in the coming decade. The era of leadership teams wearing digital ignorance as a badge of pride needs to end.  It’s time to stop humouring the “I don’t ‘do’ computers” brigade. If you don’t ‘do’ them, either get with the programme and embrace the opportunities to develop new skills. Or recognise that the train is leaving the station without you.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Sahil Khan October 3, 2014, 9:15 pm

    Great blog. I agree with everything you have said. If housing associations aren’t going to do digital well then they should just stop wasting time and money on projects that lack ambition and the necessary know how. They should instead make use of free social media platforms to engage with residents and deal with queries in the traditional ways. We need some trailblazers to really raise their game and show others how to follow. This seems to work well in the sector or the other option is that you set up your own consultancy and give other housing associations the chance to ‘buy-in’ the digital leadership and skills needed. Housing association love a good consultant and there seems to be gap in the market for a consultancy that understands housing associations from the inside and digital properly. I won’t get started on the IT and software suppliers to the sector, other than just saying I don’t know how they get away with providing the products they do. I can’t wait for Jon Foster to get a great team of housing and digital service design people together to build an alternative housing management system. It’s Eid tomorrow, so going to stop being cynical and get in the festive spirit :-).

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