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



I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Pic borrowed from the lovely people at ITPro

Big Data maybe the buzzword of the day, but it is in the small data where real nuggets of gold can be found.  Working in a team that heavily uses data, figures, numbers and spreadsheets you often get flashbacks to school days.  Where the pretty girl would only speak to you when she needed help with algebra (don’t worry the joke was on her, I sucked at algebra).  It’s not so much that data/performance figures are forgotten about, you can bet your bottom dollar the whole world and its pet gofer will be chasing you up at quarter and year-end.  But most see it as someone else’s business/job, an add-on to theirs, nothing more.

Part of my current role is to get people to use data, not just more often but more effectively.  I luckily avoid most of the negotiations with operationally focused managers looking to hit targets by ‘trimming the fat’.  What I tend to delve into is providing support on bespoke requests.  These can range from the disturbingly detailed “I need to know the locations of all ASB cases committed by left-handed tenants with a distinct love of the writings of Nietzsche”.  To more simple pieces like “I want to see changes in customer satisfaction in relation to repairs over a period of x years”.

OK I made up the first one but it neatly highlights the occasionally left-field requests that you get.  And the general lack of understanding of the data that an organisation holds.  Indeed the most often used phrase the team I operate in is Why?  Not to be deliberately pernickety or condescending but because a lot of the time the requests that come in are continuously evolving ones.  Someone has had a spark of something, somewhere and we need help to draw out what is required.  Sometimes it is just to say, no you don’t need that information on a sodding map.

Of course ensuring the data we use/keep is up to date and correct is a whole industry in itself, something I have lamented long and hard about before.  But as a provider of social housing we have at our disposal a fair whack of information.  Good job we’re not on the side of evil then…

Typically the data held by a housing association can be split into 3 parts.  The household, the property and the tenancy. Crucially this is information either held by an organisation in perpetuity as it relates to their assets (x number of bedrooms in x number of properties), is data given to us by the customer (date of birth, email etc – FYI you still need to be able to justify why you have this info, otherwise the Information Commissioner will be so far up your booty they will be able to tickle your tonsils) or tenancy management data (Mrs Jones has been mooning next door again).

The key facet to these data sets is trust.  The rest of the organisation needs to trust that the data you are providing is sound (and that is before you get to the tenants themselves!) and that it can aid them in the day-to-day roles they undertake.  Simple things like mapping out arrears cases or ASB issues can help prioritise workloads/staffing levels.  Looking at the areas with the most possession orders against levels of deprivation and customer segmentation data (if you have it) can also help.  But mostly it is about drawing out the data so that it is something useful.  Because let’s face it, figures on their own are dull, dull, dull.  And that is coming from a guy who sits and uses spreadsheets for 90% of his day*.

Big data projects for housing are on the horizon, but as this is social housing that horizon is a long way in the distance.  In the meantime, if you aren’t already, look at the small data and use it a bit more wisely.

*The other 10% of the time is spent being awesome and doing other work related things.

If you are inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.