Back in the day, there was a Council or Housing Association coming to market every week looking for an ‘Integrated Housing Management System’. Whether migrating from an in­house IT nightmare or looking to swap out another HMS, the transaction was predictable: a beauty parade comparing back­office functionality across twenty or so modules each designed to cater for silo departments.

It is still the case that the vast majority of providers depend heavily on housing systems to support their business on a daily basis. Moreover the new business market remains buoyant, although specifications continue to become more demanding, growing in both detail and specificity. It’s arguable that this is a doomed attempt to fix a fundamentally flawed procurement process; you could liken it to an overblown waterfall project, in which the customer spends months trying to stop the world long enough to specify in advance and in detail everything they will need for the next decade. They then give supplier a fortnight to design and commit to a solution with fixed scope, timescale and resources. We all know what happens when you try to do that.

However the sector is in transformation and its needs from ICT are changing faster than ever before. You expect a generic customer­centred platform which supports your evolving business model. You need a ready solution but also the flexibility to customise and create your own processes and user interface. You want access to all of this from any device anywhere and at any time without needing thin client technology, a focus on digital UX and UI for staff, partners and customers. Open integration capability should be a given, as should the freedom to make your own choice of BI and analytics solutions.

In fact you shouldn’t really think about a “Housing Management System” any more ­ a “business management software solution for housing companies” might be more apt. So how can you get this? There are three approaches:

Option 1: Engage the sector specialists
The chief advantage of going with specialists is that they live and breathe Housing. Their lifeblood depends on keeping up with changes in the legal and political landscape, building solution to address challenges such as Welfare Reform, Right To Buy and Pay To Stay.

However not all suppliers are the same. Their differing attitudes can be illustrated using the Boston Matrix: some regard their HMS as a “Cash Cow”, exploiting customer lock­in resulting from high cost of change to generate continued recurring revenue but with little product investment. These products haven’t changed much, are outdated and unfairly give other suppliers to the sector a bad name. The “Star” products of the past certainly need renewal. The needs of the sector are changing quickly and there is a new breed of products coming onto the market which could perhaps be described as “Question Marks”, not yet proven. You could put these into three categories: “evolving from solid foundations”, “tear it up and start again” or “buying lots of components and promising to bolt them together (AKA growth by acquisition)”.

There are many examples of housing providers successfully using integrated housing solutions that incorporate functionality for CRM, case management, mobile etc. However there will always be specialist solutions that cannot be matched like­for­like by a housing solution vendor; vendors should offer choice to their customers to use their own integrated solutions, take a ‘best of breed’ partner product with an assurance of integrated support, or an API which will enable the provider to integrate a product of their own choosing. For example if you want to go down the Microsoft Dynamics route, then you should find that your housing solution fully supports this.

Providers don’t all share the same priorities and therefore choice is crucial ­ you don’t want to be locked into a closed ecosystem, forced to use add­on modules.

Option 2: Build It Yourself
A number of providers are busy building their own housing solutions, having given up on the ‘traditional vendors’. These are at different stages of completeness but one thing they all share is that in effect they’re a bespoke development for one client. At first this is a wonderful experience you get exactly what you want, and quickly! But as with all software solutions, mistakes creep in and your needs change; inexorably support issues mount up and it becomes harder and harder to move forward. One need only consider the fate of the high­profile in­house development projects of the previous decade to see how expensive this can become.

A dispassionate value for money analysis would judge some packages solutions favourably compared to the cost of in­house development or adapting products designed for the commercial sector. As Brian Moran of Adactus Housing quipped after his characteristically breathtaking presentation about analytics, cloud and IoT at Housing Technology’s 2015 conference, “In defence of Housing Management Systems… they are very cheap; what we do [in­house development] is very expensive.”

A dispassionate value for money analysis would judge some packages solutions favourably compared to the cost of in­house development or adapting products designed for the commercial sector. At Housing Technology’s 2015 conference there were several presentations about in­house development projects boasting impressive results, but an examination of the costs involved revealed in each case a sizeable dedicated development team representing a very high level of ongoing investment.

Option 3: ERP
The notion of a “Housing Management System” is now only part of the overall capability of the leading sector­specific solutions. Suppliers investing in the future are looking to provide similar capability and integration as the traditional ERP vendors, but for a fraction of the cost. The sector specialists should be able to provide not just support for housing management but also operations, asset management, finance, HR, payroll, CRM and increasingly commercial activities. The solution should be integrated at data, process and analytical levels and mobilised to enable business agility and freedom of technology choices.

ERP solutions can also offer these capabilities albeit at a much higher price; some hope to benefit from developments funded by large corporates in commercial sectors, but others would argue that the development required to meet the specific needs that define the housing sector will never be commercially attractive to these vendors. If you’re happy to be led by the commercial imperatives and working practices of other sectors then this could be your choice.

A long­term commitment
It isn’t easy to change the ICT platform on which your business depends. Rather than seeing the answer as simply buying or building a solution you should also be asking hard questions about what life will be like in the future. How will you keep your solution up to date? What happens when today’s popular choice technology starts to become unbearably expensive? Can you move to cloud­based solutions? Do your key suppliers ‘get’ the sector and how it’s changing, and will they commit to it for years to come?

If you choose to go into a relationship with a supplier, remember it’s how they think and what they’re planning that matters, not what they can sell you on paper or in a demo.

Aidan Dunphy, Head of Product Strategy (Orchard)