Like a thrawn three year old or an awkward puppy, I sometimes need coaxed to try something new. Don’t misunderstand, I’m no mattock wielding luddite. I get change, love it, the excitement of improving performance and its importance to my business. But what I have before me now is the biggest shift in enterprise since the Babylonians created cuneiform and advertised for the first accountant. Sometimes things are too big for your field of vision. So even though I understand, in a soft-focus way, that there is a wonderful digital future for housing associations, until now enthusiasm has been delegated.

Meanwhile my head is down in the detail. Surrounded by national austerity and industrial meltdown in the North East, our customers need us to cut costs and keep rents down. Unfortunately our cost base is unruly and stubborn. Boiled down to its basics, what we do hasn’t changed much in the one hundred and fifty years since Octavia Hill started our industry. It feels just as labour-intensive as it must have been in those grim Victorian rookeries, although we have all manner of sophisticated systems and kit and have had for years. In fact, right now we are pouring money into IT and developing all sorts of innovative solutions and changing services. But for all that activity, I’d be the first to admit that it’s not joined up. Not in my head at least.

So I signed up for the Action Learning Setworkshops, as part of the SCVO’s One Digital programme; a chance to work with peers from across the voluntary sector and draw wisdom and inspiration from their experience. The first thing I learned is that it’s not about the technology, there is a digital solution to most things; it’s about people. Secondly, although the technology and the science feel impersonal, that IT investment is actually about how best to focus the precious social aspects of our services, the face-to-face hours that matter. It’s about nudging and being smart.

“It’s not about the technology, there is a digital solution to most things; it’s about people”

The Pareto Principle predicts that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes; translated into “landlord”: most staff time is spent on a fifth of tenants, and our processes designed around them. Why? We are a charity, there are historical, moral and legal reasons for concentrating on those in difficulty, but a digital future doesn’t have to play by the same rules.

The vision Grampian Housing Association is creating is about making new rules, so that access to our homes and our services is easy and 24/7 for the majority of tenants: the self-dependant, the confident, those that have a smart phone or access to the internet. There is no one size fits all, and efficiency there allows us to properly resource the support and intervention that the vulnerable few need on tap. Now, I think I have it. With enthusiasm, missionary zeal even. Most staff get it, got there before me, which is a relief, but the thousands of tenants, and tens of thousands desperately seeking a home may take some conversion.

That’s my 2016 challenge: I need to pull the threads into a coherent whole and develop an over-arching digital strategy that will see 90% of our services entirely delivered online. How we do things will be remodelled, like a Toyota factory, around standardisation and the elimination of bureaucracy for those customers that are capable and want an instant service, and develop a more bespoke answer for those that need it. It might not save a lot from the budget but it means that as a charity, we are spending our money on the right people, and picking up the pieces so they can make a fresh start.

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