Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated 13/09/16



Stick or Twist

Housing Associations need to look beyond their Housing Management Systems if they are to fully realise the potential of the data at their fingertips.

Housing Management Systems (HMS) are the ‘precious’ of the social housing sector. Simultaneously one of the most fretted about and under appreciated bits of tech a social landlord uses. They come in various shapes, sizes and cost anything from an arm and a leg, to the whole body. They are essential in providing the day to day information that an organisation needs to survive. From logging customer contact to repairs, arrears, lettings, new tenancies, customer contact information; you name it, you probably store it on your HMS.

But despite their many uses Housing Management Systems are increasingly only part of the picture when it comes to data insight. The static reports that come as part of, or more likely bodged onto, the procured package often provide reams of figures but not always something that is valuable to the business beyond fixed point reporting. Indeed when it comes to data insight HMS’s are often more of a hindrance than a help.

Origins and Evolution

Some might argue it is a bit unfair to expect what is essentially a highly complex excel/access database to be able to provide a malleable, easy to use data insight functionality. After all aren’t they merely posh data repositories? Well yes, to a point, but why store a load of data if you are not going to use it? If you are having to push out data into excel or access databases to then format it into something usable, then something has gone very wrong indeed.

Frankly is doesn’t help that more often than not the software looks like a throwback to Windows 95. Seriously find somebody who is good at developing software that doesn’t look like the digital version of 1960’s brutalist architecture. It might get hipsters and historians all weak at the knees, but it is god awful for the rest of us. And that’s before you get to the actual functionality.

The Great Leap Forward

More and more the sector is moving away from its over-reliance on HMS products, largely as a result of software developments elsewhere. Business Insight tools are a key part of this evolution that is gradually dragging the sector into the century of the Anchovy 21st Century. With GIS mapping software, data mining and data visualisation tools such as Tableau or Microsoft’s Power BI all having a part to play in weaning the sector of its dependency on technology that isn’t providing the solutions needed.

Caution is required to ensure the lure of shiny new things doesn’t distract from what is a good addition to your current digital arsenal and merely being sucked into the latest fad. But expecting your HMS to magically be able to stretch beyond its core functionality and neatly fit into the next-gen of data analysis, insight and visualisation is a bit of a pipe dream. As is expecting a new bit of software to solve all your problems. Alongside getting out the credit card it is worth asking the following questions:

  • How long has your HMS been used at your organisation? Why did you get it?
  • When did you last check whether it was fit for purpose?
  • When did you last look at what the data needs of the organisation are?

Dust off your digital, IT and data strategies (admit it, you still haven’t put these into one coherent strategy), look at needs (both present and future) of the business, look at the options available and use the sound base your HMS provides to feed into what is out there. Otherwise you will be stuck with Excel spreadsheets and Access databases wasting time whilst your staff manually do what can be done by a bit of software in a tenth of the time.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.


There’s a Map for That

Blue Sky GIS – What I Do (2012)

Often one of the most over looked aspects of a housing organisation is the map guy/gal. Having been used for years by Local Authorities it is something the sector is still getting to grips with. I’m lucky enough to sit next to one of the two GIS specialists in our organisation and get a front row view of their work. Whilst we often jokingly refer to them as ‘colourers in chief’ their impact cannot be under-estimated. Depending on your size, geographical spread and ability to use data you have to hand, those what dabble in a bit of cartography can also be a gem for you and your kin.

GIS, what does that entail exactly

G.I.S. itself stands for Geographical Information System (don’t worry, I googled that too). It’s a means by which to use, manipulate, visualise and otherwise demonstrate data. In short a GIS Officer/Analyst/Necromancer is someone au fait with all things Maps and data. They can help identify areas of land to sell off, reduce costs relating to boundary searches/disputes and liaise with Land Registry (not for the faint hearted, you may need a live sacrifice). In addition, they can work with your estates team(s) to more accurately identify and cost areas of work for internal teams and external contractors. Ultimately, they can save you a lot of money.

That’s cool, show me the money

You’re not going to be making it rain à la Floyd Mayweather in a strip club, but you will need to drop a dollar or two. GIS specialists don’t grow on trees, but they are available. Though it depends on your organisation’s size, structure and what you want to achieve as to how much you need to spend. It’s worth noting that having just one person who is a specialist, at least at the start, is not a wise move. At the initial phase you will need to smash through a lot of set up work. Like clearing out your old eccentric uncle’s garage when he dies there will be a lot of crap to sort in the beginning.

So what do I get out of it?

So you’ve taken the plunge and gone in on GIS for your organisation. Easy part done, time to justify your shopping spree. First port of call – visualising information en masse. Let’s face it data is boring. Whilst some of us can see the patterns a bit like Neo in the Matrix, for the average Joe/Joetta having some way of displaying lots of factual tit bits is better than loads of figures on a spreadsheet. Mapping that stuff (where appropriate) can help. Showing stock/population density is a good start (nothing says stock rationalisation like seeing one property miles from any other stock), highlighting areas where arrears are above average, locations/concentrations of ASB cases are all things that can be plonked on a map. Mrs Jones threatening legal action over encroachment on her property? No worries, use boundary information and a bit of software that is accurate to within 3 inches to show she is chatting bollocks/right [delete whichever is appropriate]. Got to map and locate all trees you are liable for (yes, this is a thing check it out here if you don’t believe me, sexy stuff eh?). No worries. Go out, survey the sods, get it logged, map it. Viola! All your botanically based public liabilities neatly mapped.

The possibilities aren’t endless, but there’s a lot of them. You can also get to a stage where most staff members can use a watered down version of GIS to self-serve, freeing up your specialists for the more complex stuff. Of course that largely depends on your data being up to scratch, but I’ll leave that potential horror story well alone for today.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Customer Feedback – Dos and Don’ts

As social landlords get savvier with their approaches to customer feedback it is essential that they focus on what to do with the information after it is collected, rather than just hoarding data.

In many ways gathering customer feedback is the most straightforward part of the process. You complete a repair/install a new bathroom, close off an ASB case, you then ask your customer what they thought of how you/your contractors did. It is using that feedback in a meaningful way that tends to be more problematic.

Typically there are three parallel needs relating to customer feedback. The first is to inform the organisation of the ‘health’ of a service that they are providing. The second ties into contract management (if the service is provided by an external company) and the third is to give voice to customer and links back to service improvement.

If your organisation simply wants a percentage figure then they can very easily get one, hell I’ll give it to you now, it’s 42. The issue is often that organisations fixate on improving the numbers rather than the service it relates to. A bit like having a Chancellor of the Exchequer who puts all efforts into reducing the deficit by cutting spending/selling off bits & pieces, instead of shoring up/diversifying the economy (which will have the same effect). Or a Prime Minister who believes that cutting off social housing and focusing just on home ownership will sort out our housing crisis. Short term this may lead to some success, if only marginally; adjusting what is measured, when or how can improve scores, but doesn’t address the underlying issues in service provision. To do this you need to put the voice of the customer in-front.

Lag to lead indicators

Often one of the main drawbacks in customer feedback programmes is the gap in the time between the service interaction and the surveying of that occurrence. This tends to stem from use of paper based surveys (stop them now!) or cold call telephone surveys. Whilst not invalid methodologies, these approaches mean that in terms of service improvement you’re chasing your tail somewhat. Issues with your services are picked up, but significantly after the fact. Whilst those at the coalface will feel the heat, you are firefighting rather than putting in place solutions that will resolve the issues at hand. What you need is feedback that flags up issues as and when they occur. This will allow you nip things in the bud instead of festering and developing weird and wonderful personalities. And as a consequence, improve the service you provide.

The ties that bind

So you have your data, it is nice, up to date and fresh, what do you do with it? Simple, be proactive and speak with (not talk to) your customers (both internal and external). You would be amazed at how responsive customers can be when you are proactive with the issues they have raised. Additionally by involving other parts of the business you facilate the engagement, and ultimately the buy-in, that will drive your customer feedback programme forward. Whilst it’s easy preaching to the converted, getting out there and getting the rest of your organisation on board showing is crucial. Your average bod won’t care about the ins and puts. Just how it can make their life easier and improve the service they provide. Show them how it does that and you’ve won half the battle.

Another obvious area to consider is working with your contractors (if you have them). No-one sets out to deliberately do a bad job, have a grown up conversation about what is wrong. Your ‘fresh’ lead time data can pull out trends. A sharp dip in satisfaction relating to a particular service area can be drawn out, tied to operational data/Performance Indicators (PIs) and an improvement plan put in place. Though whatever you do make sure not only the rest of the organisation knows what is going on, but also your customers. As ultimately changes to services will affect them more than anyone else, and it will help counter the ‘no one never tells me nothing’ troop (though there’s no helping some people).

So there you have it, better get cracking then.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

5 Reasons Why Your Data Needs An Overhaul

If this article sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about data before. Still, it seems as a sector the message isn’t quite getting through. So, once more unto the breach my friend.

1 Accept Your Data Isn’t That Great

Despite holding a huge array of information Social Landlords remain poor at maintaining it. A bit like a teenage boy encountering his first bra. We fumble around in the dark a bit, tell ourselves other people struggle just as badly and hope we haven’t completely put off the poor lass trying (and failing) to unclip that tricky double clasp.

2 Get Your Data Out of That Silo

No doubt there are a number of people in your organisation who get data. Sadly they tend to fall into 2 groups. 1) The Smeagols, their ‘precious’ is not to be messed with. You can look at the data, but you can’t touch it as you’ll mess things up. God forbid if you want to amend anything. This OCD approach to keeping data ‘perfect’ helps no one. 2) The hardcore geek, frantically trying to keep order but unable to get buy-in from anyone outside their team. Siloed away this potential resource is perennially ignored until it’s end of year reporting time. Getting all parts of your organisation to understand the importance of data, and guide them how to use it is essential. Otherwise you might as well go pee into the proverbial wind.

3 – Your Training Needs a Refresh

Let’s face it, when people start a new job they are bombarded with information. A week to 2 weeks of ramning home compulsory training and corporate indoctrination is not the best environment to induce learning. Alas this is when people tend to get their system/data use training. And frankly you can give people all the training in the world and they will ignore it and just copy the person next to them.

4 – Customer Segmentation is a rule of thumb, not an absolute

Like Tamagotchis, Pokeman and Yoyos odd trends in data come in and out of fashion. Customer segmentation is a perfect example of this. It must be said that CS is a very useful tool. But, and it is a big but. CS is a guide, it is not definitive. In legal speak it is a burden of proof that is on the balance of probabilities, not something that is beyond all reasonable doubt. Remind senior staff this when they start throwing buzzwords around. It is embaressing when you go to external events and hear people chat crap on this topic. Stop it. Stop it now. Ps it wasn’t anyone from my organisation, thank the maker.

5 – Bad Data In, Bad Data Out

Strange as it seems if you pump your housing management system full of crap, it will give you crap. Whilst most data systems have validation rules you can put in place, you’d be amazed at how creative people get when wanting to get round things they find burdensome. It’s not just Investment Banks and expensive lawyers who can find loopholes. This ties into point 3, I would back it up with carrots and big nasty sticks to ensure compliance.

So there you have it. If this is sounding horribly familiar, unlucky. But acceptance is the first part of the grieving process. After which you might start to resolve the issues at hand.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.