Dataverse and Power Apps usher in new ways of working

A best-in-class enterprise architecture for housing associations is increasingly built on a cloud first, mobile first, web first trio of guiding principles. In fact, these cornerstones, when combined with data and culture, form the basis of many digital transformation strategies that I have worked on in the last year or so. And for good reason too! 

These digital principles have started to usher in new ways of working as we have worked to mobilise our people, our processes and our data assets. In just a few years’ time, many housing associations will be unrecognisable compared to where they are today. We are genuinely witnessing a step change, an evolutionary turning point, as fresh thinking about human centred service design principles are being augmented with advanced tooling and systems that would have been unimaginable until now. Dataverse and Power Apps are compelling examples of this. 

I have worked in housing for over 22 years and I have never seen anything like it. The pace of change is relentless and is being fuelled by great leadership, new talent, innovation and fantastic technological opportunities to advance our working practices and services.  

The idea that a modern workforce is tethered to a desk, located in a purpose built office, has never really stood the test of time. Business strategies and corporate plans demand exemplar levels of customer service and customer satisfaction which is achieved through the delivery of high-quality housing services that align to the exacting service needs of customers. Many organisations are implementing transformation programmes which, in large part, aim to increase back office efficiencies, reduce waste and maximise the digital experience for customers and other stakeholders. 

We have seen a recent and sustained dramatic rebalancing of budgetary commitments across the housing sector. This rebalancing of budgets is shifting the spend profile from the back office to the digital front office and from a reactive service to a proactive approach driven by data, insights and a detailed understanding of each unique customer. It is worth a moment to pause and reflect on this precise point and what it means for the sector. This reengineering and repurposing of resources is profound and will have a long lasting effect. 

The job of routinely maintaining IT and the ‘current state’ is being replaced with the need for digital professionals to make substantial contributions to customer and colleague value chains through a digitalisation and automation workload over and above the traditional maintenance responsibilities.  

Highly commoditised IT maintenance workloads, i.e the business of running infrastructure and helpdesk activities, are increasingly being directed at external business partners to create this new internal digital capacity for transformation. This creates a scalable resourcing platform which enables housing associations to concentrate and align premium internal digital resource on bimodal service management and digital transformation.  

This dramatic change of emphasis has been enabled by ambition, raised expectations, environmental pressures and opportunities created through advanced cloud computing and new ways of working. 

Housing associations have recognised that they are increasingly needing to become digitally native businesses to successfully provide contemporary fit-for-future on-line housing services. This is in line with what is happening across all sectors as they work hard to reposition their operating models to meet increasing customer demand for always on services while delivering strong financial performance.  

Therefore, digital culture needs to be baked into the organisational design from the ground up rather than being belatedly added as a peripheral addon to a fundamentally historic analogue business model.  

We all know that customer satisfaction and effective cost control are key competitive and commercial differentiators. Rightsizing and reconfiguring the business in this way enables housing associations to invest in better services and build more homes. Both of which represent the fundamental reasons for the existence of housing associations in the first place. 

Enlightened leadership teams are starting to recognise the possibilities and opportunities that are available to them. This journey of discovery concerning the potential for new ways of working creates a sudden and dramatic appetite for revolution. It’s a real call to arms and comes with a heartfelt sense of urgency. 

Given this backdrop, an expression I often come across when talking to housing associations is their pursuit of change and transformation at pace. For the people tasked with actually delivering change at pace, this usually involves significant changes in their complexion alternating between various shades of sickly green and ghostly white as they confront the enormity of what they are being asked to deliver.  

Another expression that is relevant to dealing with this challenge is about working smarter rather than working harder. For example, swapping out your legacy housing system for another legacy housing system is risky, expensive, it ties up huge volumes of your human resource and quite frankly you will simply be trading and changing the shape of your technical debt. This doesn’t make any sense; it doesn’t move you forward and certainly doesn’t move you forward at pace. Back office operational systems do not transform business models and customer service architecture. 

What if there was another way to transform customer services, mobilise data and automate processes? What if there was a new way of working? 

The Microsoft Power Platform and Dataverse is a cutting-edge cloud platform that enables the digitisation, automation and mobilisation of your business processes. These modern cloud tools enable you to fundamentally reboot and rearchitect your customer services and organisational design.  

Dataverse (formerly called the CDS Common Data Service) enables you to create agile, rapid data driven solutions to compensate for the gaps and ultimately replace large parts of your legacy housing systems through a highly democratised low code/no code approach. The PowerPlatform consists of PowerApps, Power Automate, Portals, Virtual Assistants and Power BI. These components work extremely well in isolation but form an impressive and broad array of capabilities when combined and used together. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. 

Through the use of low code/no code technology you are able to democratise software development while avoiding high-cost and high-risk housing system replacement projects. You will work to shrink the legacy down over say a five-year programme until it is organically displaced by the modern cloud native SaaS tooling.  

Personally, I would rather commit to a long-term strategy that directs my precious and limited financial resources at my future digital assets rather than the technology assets that served me well in the past. 

This is the strategy we advocate at TSG and we genuinely believe this to be a smarter approach. It is lower risk, lower cost and offers high reward through the rapid agile delivery of MVP minimum viable product at pace. Plus, it encourages human centred design thinking and Devops principles to flourish. 

In-fact, many of our housing clients are adopting precisely this approach to mobilise and modernise their computing platforms while they let their historic legacy wither on the vine as it is ultimately displaced by cloud computing.  

This is a ‘displacement’ strategy rather than a ‘replacement’ strategy. At TSG, we refer to this as shrinking the nucleus of the legacy while expanding out the next generation of Microsoft first, cloud first, mobile technologies. 

What are my options? 

Housing associations have a wide range of options available to them when considering their existing systems.  

Build

Going alone is rarely an attractive option for most people due to the upfront costs of and the ongoing maintenance and development costs. Once built however, you can bespoke your custom built housing software very quickly to meet your needs, but for most people the costs and risks do not outweigh the rewards. There are very few examples of this across the sector. 

Buy housing specific 

The mainstream established vendors of housing software systems include Civica, Aareon, Northgate, Capita, and MRI. These organisations have developed purpose-built housing systems specifically for housing associations to run their core processes. They are regarded as best of breed and are well tried and tested over many years. Also, these vendors have continued to invest and are increasingly working to deliver pure SaaS solutions delivered via a web browser on any device. 

Interestingly, there is some disruption going on and some new entrants in the form of Rubix and Techlabs iProperty Cloud who will no doubt make some waves very soon. 

In some circles, there is a sense of disillusionment regarding the traditional systems across the sector. This sentiment is driven by the perceived slow pace of change, a move to the cloud vs on-premise, the demand for open systems and the cost of ownership. Customers are looking for innovative options to modernise their software platforms while building in the potential for faster change at a lower cost. 

Generic universal appeal 

So what is ‘generic’ software? I think it is worth defining this term for complete clarity. Generic software is software that is not purpose built for housing. The idea of generic software is that it is generically applicable across multiple sectors and industries and is not exclusively designed for one specific sector. The argument here is that all business have a common set of core business processes eg, goods-in, logistics, goods-out, invoice, HR, payroll, finance. While there is a recognition that there are variances between organisations, the argument goes that these variances can be accommodated through configuration or through a partner enabled integrated ecosystem that extends the core generic software, tailoring it to specific industries, sectors or vertical requirements. 

Leading examples of this approach include vendors such as SAP, Oracle, Salesforce and Microsoft who all have a presence in the sector. 

Empower your people 

It’s most definitely worth noting the considerable and widespread adoption of low code/no code solutions. According to Gartner intelligence, leading providers offering low code/no code solutions are Microsoft with its Power Platform, Outsystems, Salesforce and Mendix. Netcall is also an interesting supplier to the housing sector offering low code capabilities within its Netcall Liberty platform. 

The idea of low code / no code platforms is to fully democratise software development by enabling empowered power users to rapidly develop advanced sophisticated software. This is achieved by dragging and dropping graphical components onto a black canvass in the form of an IDE (integrated development environment). Having created the core components, using drag and drop, you then simply connect those components up with connectors to trigger actions, integrations and if/then/else conditional branching logic. TSG have a large number of housing association customers who have worked with us, using Microsoft Power Platform, to develop modern digital solutions that extend the features within their legacy housing systems across the modern SaaS Microsoft cloud. 

Middleware 

Whichever strategy you explore you will sadly never avoid the need for integration and interfaces between systems. The reality in housing is that you will never get away with one system for all requirements. Therefore, middleware or interfaces are needed to “glue” it all together. TSG provide middleware connectivity through a range of technologies that suit customer requirements. 

Final Thoughts 

As of 2021, it’s likely that most housing associations will continue to buy or retain a traditional purpose-built housing system from the traditional providers for the time being. This will however come with a degree of soul searching and head scratching. 

A selection of organisations are opting to work with Microsoft Gold partners in an attempt run their entire housing association on a consolidated Microsoft D365 platform. More often than not though these same organisations decide that D365 does not provide the entire solution and they choose to retain a traditional housing system to some extent, particularly in the areas of rents, income management and asset management. 

Other organisations accept that they will need to retain a nucleus of traditional housing system functionality ongoing but ‘wrap’ generic software around it to achieve an integrated multi-vendor best-of-breed approach blending existing technology with new technology. 

Despite these three primary strategic options housing associations are increasingly discovering the delights of low code/no code automation solutions and the Microsoft Power Platform. The Power Platform consists of Power Automate, Power Apps, Power BI and Power Virtual Assistants. 

If you haven’t considered how a Microsoft first approach to modernising and extending your housing management system might transform your strategic choices, then you might want to take a look. The Microsoft Power platform, Syntex, Viva and Dataverse provide the tools that enable you to rapidly develop software that extend and compliment your housing system. This will provide you with the modern cloud tooling that enables you to add more value to your business by accelerating software development timescales and reducing costs. 

The collaborative nature of Microsoft’s products as well as the commitment to streamlining productivity might make Microsoft an essential part of your digital strategy.

If you would like to learn more about Dataverse for housing associations, register for our Dataverse Lunch and Learn on 21st September 12:30pm

 

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Written by Kirsty Marsden (Housing Team Senior Service Design Lead),