HOUSING HACKATHON – Opinion Interview with Addi Ammar – Housing Rockstar!

Recently I had the privileged of having a chat to Addi Ammar, one of the Dynamics 365 housing specialists at Hitachi Solutions and also one of my mates. Addi is SUPER passionate about housing and has working in the industry for over 5 years. Her passion for the technology and for how it can be utilised to provide solutions in the housing industry is infectious. I really loved chatting.

Firstly, Thanks to Addi for taking the time out to chat to me. Was super fun and I learnt a whole lot. Recently Addi attended a housing hackathon hosted by Microsoft at the Thames Valley Park Offices on the 14th of March. Addi and her team were the proud winners J very cool and congratulations to all who put in so much hard work to make this event possible.

Normally we would do a recording, but I thought we would try this in a Q&A / dialogue type structure just to see how it works. We did laugh a lot: D so, here we go.

Chris: Welcome Addi, thanks for taking the time to chat. So, after attending the housing hackathon at Microsoft yesterday, what did you think? Was it fun to hang around a bunch of like-minded people and chat tech / problem solving?

Addi: I thought it was a really interesting and insightful day. There were a number of housing associations there as well as a number of vendors with different technologies and different offerings. So, it was really good to get everybody in a room together and, kind of, pass the ideas around. What was interesting, was that every HA had the same pain points… Even though this is something that we know, it’s really nice to get that sanity check and to hear everybody saying, Do you know what? Repairs, how do we manage them? How do we make it more intelligent? And, in fact, for the hackathon, all the teams picked repairs as their biggest pain point.

Chris: HAHAHA, no ways! That’s really interesting.

Addi: EVERYBODY! So it was really hard for the judges, because they were judging 5 repairs solutions.

Chris: Wow

Addi: So our table was predominantly Dynamic vendors. We had Advanced at the table, we had RSM, and obviously Hitachi. We had ANS there who weirdly, I used to work for. ANS offer a solution where they can migrate your current platform up into the cloud. We also had our housing association we were working with. What was cool is at our table, they had brought one of their tenants, so instead of bringing all IT staff and people from the business, they brought a tenant as well, which is probably what gave us the edge, because we were able to talk about technology and its impact on people at the other end. The GENUINE customer experience. I thought it was a fab day. We had loads of idea sharing.

Chris: That’s very cool! So did you and your team come up with a great solution to solve problems with repairs? Did you focus on anything in particular about repairs, or just the whole process?

Addi: We looked at the End-to-End journey and we started by saying that you should be able to raise a repair through any mechanism because it has to be what meets the needs of the tenant. So as well as having a mobile app, Artificial Intelligence, Chat bots that learn based on what’s been done before, being able to take a photograph of the repair and being able to recognise what that is. We also looked at things like Alexa and Google home because there are tenants that might have a smart phone but have no idea how to use it, whereas, Alexa is something you can physically speak to. We actually talked about tenants with dementia and Alexa might be easier for them to interact with than handling a mobile phone or interacting over a portal. Then we looked at flowing that information in and routing it out to the correct services. We also looked at the commercial element as well.

Chris: Oh Really?

Addi: Yeah I think it’s one of the things that set us apart from the other teams and one of the reasons we came first. We said well, we’re putting all this good stuff in, but HA’s firstly have maintenance staff that aren’t always busy, but they could also run like a trusted traders thing. SO, for tenants and non-tenants, they could access a service and say, you know what, my flat needs a piece of work doing, it needs painting or a toilet seat and you could pick a trusted trader that the housing association has either employed or verified. It’s an income stream, because you could charge for those repairs AND if you are letting trusted traders advertise through your housing association, you are generating income. SO, Yeah, they really liked that.

Chris: So you managed to bring a load of the bits and pieces together from a repair point of view. Do you think that there alignment between the HA’s and the partners? I suppose different ideas come from different places! Do you think the HA’s even knew some of this technology existed?

Addi: My impression was, there is a lot of buzzwords in the industry at the moment and for some housing associations, they have not even started their CRM journey. They have a load of disparate systems, they have all this data that is sitting in different systems, but they can’t use it. They have heard buzzwords in the industry like Alexa and Chat Bots but they don’t know where to begin in applying that because they have not got the fundamentals in place yet. I think that was really interesting in its–self. I think different people are at different stages of the journey, and that was evident in the room. So one of the housing associations that presented have gone through their digital, I’m not going to say “transformation”. HAHAAHA! I’m not going to say “Digital Transformation” because that implies that there is a destination, it’s more of a journey.

Chris: I love that!!!

Addi: You should ALWAYS be moving with the new technology and moving with the times. Striving to always be better. But the HA previously mentioned, they have done their CRM bit, they have done their standardising and rationalisation of data, systems and processes, so they are now able to look at how to make all of this more innovative. How do we get our tenants plugged into this digital shift? Some of the other HA’s haven’t started that journey, so everyone is at different points. There is A LOT of noise in the industry at the moment about chat bots, AI, Alexa bit I don’t think people realistically know how they can be applied.

Chris: You know something interesting; I was having a conversation about Alexa the other day about using Alexa in areas like Social Care. You have a scenario where an elderly person is in a smallish house, they have a fall and they can simply call out to Alexa to contact the HA or emergency services. Now that may be a little way in the future, but I thought that would be something that would make a real difference to someone’s life.

Addi: yep, that parallels really nicely with the tenant at our table was talking about one of the people she works with (She sits on a tenant panel and offers support to other tenants) has dementia and has got fixated on her laundry. This person will go out to the laundrette multiple times a day because she can’t remember if she has taken laundry there and left it. She will continuously go and check. And I said, well, if she had something like Alexa, and she could say in the morning “Alexa, I’m doing my laundry today”, then she could ask later. This stops her having to go out multiple times in a day… and we are talking about going out in bad weather as well. So, she would get a taxi or take a walk down to the laundrette because she has no-one to remind her.

Chris: Wow, that’s tough!

Addi: She doesn’t want to give up living in her home. She doesn’t want to go into a care home. Technology would enable her the ability to stay in her social housing home and not have to move into a care home…. And actually live better.

Chris: That’s very awesome. That really improves someone’s quality of life. I genuinely think that leveraging tech in that way makes a difference.

Chris. So in your opinion, realistically, how close do you think housing associations are getting to actually implementing this type of tech?

Addi: I think again, it comes down to the fact that everybody is at a different point in the journey. Based on what was said in the room, it seems everybody knows that the capability is there, actually delivering that is another story… Simply because, the HA’s themselves aren’t necessarily there yet. It has to come down to; getting the fundamentals in and working and then acknowledging that you are not building the fundamentals just for today, you are building for tomorrow as well.

Chris: So it’s very much about future proofing?

Addi: Exactly!

Chris: During the event, you must have interacted with a load of different types of people. What was the general consensus on the event?

Addi: Everyone really enjoyed it! The team that Rob Fletcher (Green Square Group) was on came up with something almost like a Pokémon go type app where when you are walking around your property it could actually pickup that there was a potential problem. It could see the damp and see the boiler lights flashing. After chatting away to people like Rob and the other vendors, everyone was getting really fired up. Yes, we were competing against other teams, but it was friendly competition. We were genuinely working together to hack these issues.

Chris: I’m actually super jealous that I couldn’t attend! So, do you think that these types of events are beneficial to the housing industry? Do you think there should be more of them?

Addi: YES! YES I do! I think HA’s want to come and I think they want to talk about what ever part of their journey they are at! They want to talk about where to go next. I think regardless of the size of the HA, there will be interest and enthusiasm. I’d really like to be part of running one with Hitachi actually! Everyone seemed to be really bought in. It wasn’t like we were trying to design something that was never going to happen. In the near future, a lot of this stuff is seriously possible. I think it would definitely be worth having more of these types of events.

Chris: Fantastic! I’ll be at the next one!

Chris: LAST QUESTION, I promise…. Do you think the Microsoft product stack aligns nicely with the requirements being made by HA’s?

Addi: The Microsoft stack is offering HA’s the ability to get all their data and processes into one place. They are sitting on so many disparate systems. A lot of the HA’s are locked into systems that they can’t easily configure or change themselves. If they want to add a few fields they need to pay someone a lot of money to do that. The Microsoft stack is flexible and Dynamic. It’s growing because of the investment behind it, which is really important. We also would love people to stay with Hitachi as their provider, but if they decided to move on, it’s not as if they are locked into something so bespoke they can never get away from it. I’ve worked at housing associations where people have been depressed because they are stuck with a system that is so bespoke and they can’t move away from the supplier. HA’s are ready for a solution that allows for them to be put on one platform and where they can control their data and processes and can still do all this innovation. Because it’s Microsoft, the innovation will just keep coming.

Chris: Oh for sure, the innovation will never stop! NEVER!!

Addi: Well, in the keynote speech at the hackathon, Microsoft stated that they are constantly updating their vision, which will then reflect on the customers.

Thank you so much to Addi for this awesome chat! As you can see through the information Addi has shared with us, Housing Associations are clearly ready to be taken on the digital journey with Microsoft and the focus on innovation is hugely important. I love the fact that the tenant on Addis team gave so much information and I think that plugging tenants into the digital journey and showing that some of the processes and technologies can make life A LOT easier creates massive value all round.

D365 Custom Control Framework (CCF)

Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement contains some impressive hidden gems in some really cool functionality that really promote a more immersive and interactive user experience. One such gem is the Custom Control Framework or CCF, which enables users the ability to place interactive controls over attributes. This video shows off some of the standard Custom Controls and how to add these to the new Unified User Interface (UUI) forms. It is believed that Microsoft will enable us the ability to create our own custom controls in future releases.

I’d also like to give a shout out to Amandip Dhillon for being a part of the testing of these controls! Awesome job 🙂

Microsoft Teams & Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement – And some other ideas :)

There are so many discussions about Microsoft Teams, how they are being used and how they will work with Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement. If you think about what exactly Microsoft Teams really does it starts to make perfect sense.

GOOGLE TOLD ME THIS: “Microsoft Teams is a chat-based collaboration tool that is part of the Office 365 suite of services. Teams enables local and remote co-workers to work together in real and near-real time.”

AWESOME, sounds very useful, but don’t we have Office 365 groups and Yammer for that? Recently a few enthusiasts and I (One of them being Ken) had a discussion about what works where and how. Rather interesting because the results were quite different. I’m also almost 108.65% certain that various people were asking the same thing when O365 groups were released. “Why can’t we just use Yammer?”….???? Well I’m DEFINITELY not answering that question with this blog post and if you need more information Please look HERE… A really rock solid article that talks about some of the stuff that’s going on. I will take it on properly at some point.

What I am going to answer is how deeply MS Teams works with Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement. At the moment my personal preference is towards MS Teams because I feel as if a lot of the existing O365 collaborative functionality is going to get absorbed by MS Teams. (Personal Opinion).

MS Teams actually has an existing “Integration” (More of a connection) with Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement and will let you surface certain information within a MS Team as well as track certain activities and changes. It’s really simple… Simply follow the instructions below and you are off to a good start:

Get a team up and running and create a channel of your preference.

Once you have done that… jump into the menu and hit connectors.

Filter the connectors menu and select Dynamics 365.

Select the correct instance of Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement. Looks like you need to select an instance within your O365 tenant.

From there select a record you would like to connect with. I only saw the ability to connect with “Accounts”, “Opportunities” and “Leads”. I have a workaround for other records explained at the end of the post for other record (Entity) types.

Once you’ve connected to a record (It seems as if you can only select one at a time), you will see the “1 Configured” link under the Configuration button.

If you select the link you only have the option to remove the record. Nothing else. (YET!!!)

After you have decided not to remove the D365 Customer Engagement records because of its vital importance to your team, you will see an update on your team channel with the records addition details.

I can go into D365 Customer Engagement, search for the record, make my updates and then these will be posted to the Team Channel.

Obvs’ you can then click through the Team link through to the Dynamics 365 instance record to review and interact with the record as required.

NOW… That’s the easy part done… Here’s the hard part. There is a lot I / we don’t know. In honesty format here we go:

  1. There are only certain entity types you can connect to out the box.
  2. There are only certain fields and activities that sync through to the Teams channel from the record.
  3. The information displayed is okay, but may not be enough to inform the right team members.

The solution:

I created an MS flow to interact with Teams and D365 Customer Engagement. It solves a lot of the problems that you would generally perceive with the MS Teams and D365 connector. IE… It doesn’t only look at Accounts, Leads and Opportunities. Because flows are pretty easy to create. I reckon this solves a lot of thaw current connector gaps.

Probably another blog post for another time…

If you are serious about using teams, in my opinion, that’s the right route! Have fun and shout if you need help!