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



It’s Always the Quiet Ones

Organisational change will always have its challenges, some of which can be anticipated, others not so much. Whilst a lot of focus is spent on those near the top of the pay scale in terms of undermining change, it’s actually those closer to the ground floor that can put a real dampener on proceedings. Managing messages, engagement and understanding staff motivation(s) is therefore key.

A Little Anecdote

On my way to work there is a Shell Petrol Station (other destroyers of the Earth are available). Recently they’ve deemed fit to stop people parking on a bit of green adjacent to them. To try to do this in a not-so-dickish way they put in big concrete plant pots. What they hadn’t counted on was the tenacity of locals in wanting to park their cars for free. In short, people just parked between the aforementioned plants. A week later work men are back on the scene and by the end of the day even more plant pots have arrived and now no-one can park there. Moral of the story? People don’t like being forced to change the way they’ve always done things. You may have to leave them no option.

Things to Consider

A bit like Leadsom referring to herself as a mother to validate her view of macro-economic policy, yet taken as trashing a rival, what a person says and what other people hear are two different things. People looking to get other staff to ‘buy in’ to change tend to ignore that what the phrase means in practice i.e:

‘I want to change the way you work, hopefully for the better, but I’m not 100% sure on that. You agreeing with me makes this process a lot easier, so JFDI*.’

Not nearly as succinct, or cushty is it? But it is a more honest statement around organisational change. For many change is not an opportunity, it is more work on top of what is an already challenging workload. Often because someone at mid-to-senior level saw something at an un-conference and thought it would work rather neatly in their part of the business. Perception is key here. People who have been in a role for a while will carry on doing what they’ve always done until utterly forced otherwise. Because people are naturally cautious, careful beasts that mitigate change to the best of their abilities. Well, for the most part they are. You’ll always have a couple of nutters who want to go try something new like extreme ironing.

*Just Fucking Do It

So What to Do?

Like it or lump it, winning hearts and minds is fundamental to instigating embedded change. Because despite what a number of consultancy hawks post on twitter “Innovator Destroyers in Chief” aren’t always the heads of needless bureaucracies. Often it’s actually front line staff who are pissed off with moving goal posts and have no desire to retrain that are the most efficient change blockers.

Fundamentally what people want is to be able to do their job easier, without any risk to their livelihood. But what they hear when the change word, or its pumped up cousin transformation, is mentioned is re-structure. A phrase which is, rightly or wrongly, intrinsically associated with job cuts. Given the fact that Housing Associations go through a restructure every 2-3 years people can get battle weary. Your Top-Down Approach To Transformation (TDATT for short, the D is silent), is just another set of jobs cuts and unwelcome upheaval unless explicitly, and painstakingly, proven otherwise.

I should probably state that having been through restructures and mergers in my few years in Housing this is one of the areas I am actually a bit of an optimist. Organisations need to develop, to evolve, to grow. Stagnation is the death of a business, social or otherwise. And where change happens, so opportunities grow. But I don’t have kids, or a mortgage to worry about. What I would recommend is less time on flashy slide shows and focus more on the communication of the change; why it’s happening, will it affect jobs, what are its benefits. Otherwise your change will fail.

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

The Japanese Juxtaposition

As a sector getting creative in how we approach our traditional pitfalls of technology and digital transformation in a challenging environment is key if we are to meet the risks, opportunities and threats of the next decade.

DilbertProbably my favourite Tweet of all time came from Paul Taylor, it highlighted an article that showed there are people, living and breathing among us, who still believe that a fax machine is essential to their business. Not just a small number, 30% of those surveyed. What the actual fuck. This isn’t just something out in America, these are British workers. As someone brought up and raised on computers, who uses their smart phone to pick up news stories, who will Skype his brother half-way across the world and has a Gran who smashes it at WhatsApp this is baffling. But actually is it?

The interesting thing on technology and tech users is that people get so caught up in stereo-types that they miss the bigger picture. Old people are assumed to be rubbish, young people natural whizzes. Yet one of the most interesting articles I’ve that ‘s popped up on the BBC website shows that appearances and stereotypes can be highly deceptive. The piece in question looked at the use of technology in Japan. And how, despite appearances, many business were heavily reliant on tech that probably belonged in a museum rather than a work place.  With some estimates putting Japanese businesses 5 – 10 yrs behind their counterparts internationally in terms of adopting modern IT practices. This from a country with the bullet train and some of the best known high tech firms in the world.

Why so serious(ly slow)?

The answer is quite simple, out of the estimated 4.2million business in Japan 99.7% of them are Small or Medium Enterprises (SME) and they are tight AF when it comes to investing in IT infrastructure. And incredibly risk averse. For the fax lovers of the UK then, there is good news as they are apparently still en en vogue. Best get going then, off you go. Jokes aside this Luddite approach to technology is having a serious impact on productivity and is a part of the reason why Japan’s economy is in horrific shape. So what does this have to do with housing? Well, organisations slow to adopt new IT practices, slow to change their ways in operating, using old technology. Is this ringing any bells?

The HCA may have ruffled some feathers with its analysis of social landlord costs. But that’s only because it is in part right. We haven’t evolved because we haven’t needed to, and just as we aren’t as efficient as we could be because we could get away with it we haven’t upgraded our tech readily enough because there was no pressure to. However, in terms of the tech we use at least, that is changing sharpish. But as Peter Hall notes the traditional ways of meeting external drivers of change in terms of reducing costs may not cut it. A new digital solution or strategy does not guarantee costs savings or a more efficient way of working. Consequently re-evaluating our approaches to thinking about change maybe necessary.

The Future is Bright(ish)

If you haven’t read it already I would recommend  Paul Taylor‘s blog on the rhetoric of digital transformation. Aside from noting the depressing fact that often digital transformation A) Isn’t that transformative and B) hasn’t really happened. Paul references two chaps it is worth having a look at: Carl Haggerty and Frank Diana. Indeed if you want to collect some useful quotes/bullshit bingo Frank has some zingers.

  • In times of change the greatest danger is to act with yesterday’s logic (Quote from Peter Drucker…I don’t know him either)
  • Wait and see means wait and die (bit melodramatic, but still)
  • Leaders must shift from a focus on what is, to a focus on what could be (so on what to be or not to be…?)

Tying these into how HAs think about changing the way their business operates is key. As is moving from past success and failures and onto what might be in the future is needed, because the current methodology isn’t working. The future is going to be challenging, it’s time to get creative in how we meet it.

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


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.