Industry voice: How the functions of enterprise resource planning can raise the performance of housing management, by Dave Hirst, public sector lead for Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Operations
The performance of social housing providers – local authorities, arm’s length management organisations and housing associations – revolves largely around keeping residents secure in properly maintained houses, and ensuring the surrounding estates provide a decent environment.
It all depends on the timely deployment of frontline workers and effective management of processes, and that depends on the supporting IT, with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system playing a key role. It provides the functionality to support staff, contractors or other partners in responding to service requests from residents.
Over the long term it can also provide the capability for a housing organisation to achieve its strategic ambitions in providing more homes, creating more attractive surroundings and building communities that are more environmentally sustainable.
Microsoft has been providing an effective solution for several years in the form of its Dynamics AX ERP platform. This is now taking on a new dimension as it is unified with customer relationship management capabilities in Dynamics 365 for Operations, the cloud platform that provides a wide range of capabilities to support an organisation’s business processes.
It provides four major assets that a housing organisation can harness to build its capabilities on its own terms.
First is that it brings together all the capabilities of ERP – for management functions such as finance, HR, asset management and procurement – in a cloud based suite that is scalable and agile. It can be configured to deal with specific processes around tenancy management, repairs and rent collection, with the ability to take on more functions as the organisation evolves.
Second is the support for productivity through integration with Office 365, giving staff access to tools with which many will be familiar, and making it possible to run most processes on the one platform. Productivity is often undermined when employees have to switch systems as they switch tasks, but when it can all be done within the single suite it eradicates many of the disruptions, and the gains can quickly accumulate to provide substantial improvements in productivity, helping to improve the resident experience.
It can also provide savings against the costs of maintaining the ‘spaghetti architecture’ of legacy IT systems that have grown within many organisations over the years. Maintaining a single platform, especially when it is cloud based, is less costly and makes a futher contribution to the bottom line.
Third is the ability to embed analytical and intelligence tools, exemplified by Microsoft Power BI, within the platform. These provide the ability to understand trends and the ‘pain points’ in operations, enabling better informed decisions on business demands and planning more effectively for long term efficiencies.
Fourth is adaptability, especially to support the mobile workers who provide the backbone of a social housing operation. Microsoft Dynamics 365 can accommodate a wide range of apps for working in the field, making it possible to provide information on factors such as the nature of repairs, which assets will be needed and which have been used. These can be linked with inventory data and procurement systems to ensure there is an efficient flow of tools and materials to the frontline and that tasks are carried out to schedule.
This relates to the workflow element that provides a clear view of where workers need to be, when and what they need to complete a task. The platform can provide a seamless ability to assess the need for a job, allocate the work, ensure the workers are properly equipped, and manage procurement to make sure there are always sufficient assets in stock.
Managing this through a collection of legacy IT systems involves a series of hand-offs that can be clumsy and costly; but doing so within the Microsoft Dynamics platform makes the process smoother and controls the costs.
Looking forward, the platform also supports the move towards digital self-service for residents, integrating with the multi-channel contact capabilities of Dynamics 365. This is going to make another significant contribution to housing bodies’ efforts to provide a successful service on limited resources.
Circle Housing programme
There are already examples of organisations using the ERP capability to transform operations. Circle Housing, one of the UK’s largest providers of affordable housing with 66,000 homes across the country, is using the technology in its Fast Forward Circle programme, aimed at making it a ‘digital by default’ organisation.
Partnering with HCL, it is replacing 230 legacy applications with Microsoft Dynamics AX ERP, along with the CRM capability and BizTalk middleware, all to be hosted on the Azure cloud. This will support the response to all the residents’ service requests, and promises to provide a number of operational benefits.
These include bringing activities into coordinated and consolidated functions; enabling Circle to adopt a ‘mixed economy’ approach of using the best provider for a specific service; cutting administration time; a more accurate and consistent view of residents' data; improving the mobile capability for staff who deal with residents face-to-face; and showing more transactional information through the residents' portal.
The ultimate aim of this is for Circle to better meet the needs of its customers, and offer more opportunities for affordable and secure housing for people who need it.
This comes back to the performance priority for all housing organisations: deploying their people and processes to make life better for their residents. Technology enables this, and the ERP capabilities within Dynamics 365 provide a foundation for doing so successfully.