Innovation – the brave new world?

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midlands-innovation-reportNew research published today highlights that innovation is happening in the West Midlands and in the housing sector more widely as a direct response to the range of pressures and challenges currently facing organisations.

Commissioned by the National Housing Federation West Midlands Committee and carried out by Altair, the research was designed to uncover how associations of all sizes are responding to the new operating environment and to highlight innovative and best-practice examples to provide inspiration and prompt further thinking among housing associations.

Responding to the challenge

As we all know, the housing sector is facing a host of pressures and changes, including the 1% rent cut, the reduction in household benefit, changes to the development funding and devolution. Brexit has also introduced uncertainty to the operating environment. These new circustances pose significant challenges for housing associations of all sizes but also provide an opportunity for them to engage in new thinking, creativity and innovation in delivering their strategic objectives.

The report highlights that not only has this process of innovation started, but also that the pace of this innovation is likely to accelerate over the coming months and years. Innovations include different approaches to online engagement, digitalisation, partnership working and re-thinking the way in which services are delivered to customers.

Interestingly, the benefits apply to associations of all sizes, from those with fewer than two hundred homes to those with tens of thousands. Many have increased their focus on delivering Value for Money and are keen to understand and explore the increased efficiencies that innovative thinking and new approaches can deliver.

Digitalisation

The trend towards increasing digitalisation is particularly noteworthy and is an area where a number of innovative and best-practice approaches are taking place, including the development of more online and digital processes by organisations such as Orbit, whg and Midland Heart. Associations are also making increased use of their online presence through social networks such as Facebook to engage more directly with their customers. For example, Bromford and Stonewater have adopted interesting ways of approaching customer engagement online.

However, the extent to which channel shift has been implemented has varied and our research indicates that effective digitalisation requires an organisation-wide commitment to avoid unnecessary duplication of processes.

Staff and corporate restructuring

Other trends include staff restructuring, which has seen the consolidation of multiple roles into single multi-skilled posts and a move away from specialised employees to generic workers. The latter has led to more innovative approaches to operational service delivery such as Bromford’s “Neighbourhood Coach” model, with other associations planning to adopt generic “Property Manager” roles in the future, drawing inspiration from the private sector.

The adoption of innovative “active asset management” strategies and tools has become widespread, allowing for more dynamic and accurate management of stock, and the more effective strategic disposal of units.

The corporate/governance side of associations’ business has also seen significant change, with a continuing trend towards collapsing group structures, bringing in dormant or under-performing subsidiaries and rationalising group governance structures.

Partnership arrangements and delivery vehicles

Our research suggests that the increasing trend towards mergers is not being reflected in the West Midlands, with few associations intending on engaging in any merger, acquisition or amalgamation activity.

In terms of other partnership working options, however, there are a number of innovative and good-practice arrangements currently taking place across the West Midlands; for instance, partnerships between why and Midland Heart, and Fortis Living and Rooftop Housing  covering joint procurement and repairs respectively. A number of associations are also exploring the potential offered through sharing services.

Overall, the research has highlighted an acknowledgement that in the current economic political climate, events will continue to generate challenge to the housing sector. There remains a variety of opportunities to learn and adapt to meet these challenges, not only from within the sector but also more widely. The importance of sharing this learning and experience is ever-more critical.

You can read the report in full by clicking here.

For more information on the report, please contact Steve Douglas, Partner at Altair on 07810 152 840 | steve.douglas@nullaltairltd.co.uk