Chris Milborrow, Business Improvement Manager at Southside Housing Association (SHA) in Glasgow shares his approach to digital inclusion.
In a recent article for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), I shared some ideas for developing a holistic approach to digital inclusion. As part of this, I explained how maximising the benefits of digital inclusion initiatives required combining skills development with infrastructure and technology. This supports customers to not only develop digital skills but to put them into practice.
That article was mainly theoretical, and this post aims to follow it up with some more practical insight into how housing associations (HAs) can benefit from embedding digital inclusion as a core part of their overall digital strategies and business transformation efforts.
In 2018, research conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that 8% of people in the UK were estimated to have zero basic digital skills, lacking the ability to manage information, communicate, transact, problem solve or create via digital channels. A further 12% had only limited skills.
The impact of addressing digital skills gaps is well-documented and includes the following:
As a result, there’s a strong argument that supporting digital inclusion goes to the heart of the social purpose of Has. It can have a marked impact on the lives of customers and benefit the communities that we serve.
If this wasn’t incentive enough, there are also clear tangible business benefits for HAs. Customers with higher earnings, better employment prospects, greater ability to manage their finances and benefits and a stronger support network of friends and family are more likely to be more resilient, less vulnerable to financial pressures and less socially isolated. All of this has the potential to translate to real benefits for HAs, including reduced rent arrears, more independent customers, and stronger communities and local economies.
There’s a clear need for improving customers’ digital skills, and a huge range of benefits to doing so. Digital inclusion needs to balance skills and training initiatives with providing the right access to technology, and with infrastructure which make it possible for them to implement digital skills and knowledge regularly until it becomes normal and ‘every-day’.
The trade-off between the impact, scale and permanence of these three different aspects creates a tricky balancing act for HAs, and means that short-term digital inclusion initiatives can often provide a “quick fix” where they would provide more value and lasting impact as a long-term strategic commitment with sustained investment.
While the percentage of people with few or no digital skills has reduced steadily over recent years, it’s important to understand and address the reasons why there are still those that haven’t engaged.
The best way to achieve this can often be through the little things. For example, Sarah Neary, Digital Participation Officer at West of Scotland Housing Association (WoSHA) and a colleague from the SCVO’s Digital Champions in Housing programme spoke recently at a WoSHA conference about a recent digital participation visit to a sheltered housing complex. Faced with initial scepticism about whether digital could add value to their lives, Sarah asked about one lady’s interests, and found that she and several others in the room were very passionate about knitting. After showing them how to find thousands of free knitting patterns online, Sarah managed to create engagement and open to the door to have conversations about how digital could have an impact in other areas of their lives.
Working with customers to find ‘the hook’ that motivates, interests and inspires them to see digital differently is a vital starting point, and is often the catalyst to achieve engagement over time.
One of the greatest benefits of creating engagement for HAs is when developing and launching digital services. If customers are not equipped with the skills, equipment and connectivity, and made an integral part of the digitalisation of key processes from day one, these initiatives risk not reaching their full potential.
At Southside HA, we’re currently underway with a full housing management and finance system implementation. As part of this, we’ll be working with Orchard to launch our own digital self-service platform for customers. While the software aspect of achieving this is relatively straightforward (we’re certainly not the first in the sector to do it) we recognise that, without first engaging our user base and equipping them wherever possible with the skills to take advantage of these benefits, we’d be limiting our chances of success and the potential return on investment.
Rather than focusing our launch plan on the time required for the actual platform development, we’ll be embedding digital inclusion within our digital strategy, marketing strategy and project roadmap. In practice, this will include engaging customers via survey research and focus groups at the very beginning of the project to understand customer needs, potential barriers to adoption and identify opportunities to increase the likelihood of engagement. This will help ensure that, when we do launch our digital solutions, we’ve taken our customers along on the journey with us. In doing so, we hope that our customers will use and, most importantly, benefit from solutions that they’ve helped co-design.
Taking an integrated approach to digital is vital to HAs who are aiming to transform digitally. By improving our own processes and our customers’ digital abilities at the same time, we can achieve real digital transformation.
Most importantly, digital inclusion has the potential to provide a wealth of social benefits. By first encouraging customers to engage with our own platforms, we also increase their chances of benefiting from digital skills elsewhere and in turn, improve their lives both financially and socially and help to create more vibrant and sustainable communities.
Chris Milborrow is Business Improvement Manager at Southside Housing Association (SHA) in Glasgow. Chris is currently leading SHA’s digital transformation project which includes a full housing management, finance and asset systems implementation in partnership with Orchard Information Systems, and development and delivery of an organisation-wide IT & Digital Strategy.