Friday, 11 January 2013

Step inside (and survey) this house

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One comes along about every five years and most try to tackle 20% annually internally to keep on top of it. Yes, most IT teams have grappled with one. Yes, the ‘External Asset Survey’. Easily £65K or more of investment in even quite small RSL’s.

Many, although well tendered in my experience are time and effort wasted. Probably 40% of asset surveys I have seen, produced data in an electronic format that was incompatible with any systems already in place. On occasion, the tender just asked for ‘data in electronic format’. A PDF satisfies that one. Although a PDF is not too structured ready for import. So how can we improve this situation if your organisation has an asset survey in the business plan?

Good communication is a great start, between the ICT team, Assets Team (and your procurement people, if a formal process is to be used). Very often a survey is initiated, data received and then delivered to the ICT team to process. On many occasions, content of the survey will be driven by selected external surveyors rather than your Assets Team. This also creates an issue where collected data will bear little resemblance to what is perhaps configured to be stored in your HMS, Keystone, Promaster, Codemaster system etc.

To break that cycle, the process should be placed on its head.

If your asset management module is not particularly working well, address some of those key issues first. Integration can and is an issue with many modules out there. It can be difficult sometimes to even agree a property figure between the HMS and a third party asset/planned maintenance system. Have you got a situation like that? Some do perform better than others and some can be better ‘plumbed’ together than others. I have seen some brilliant integration as well as some disgraceful cases. As a first move, ensure your asset list, to supply to your external surveyors can be reconciled between the two systems. That will save annoying leaseholders, anyone called ‘Mr Void’ or previously deceased contacts by letter.

The next step is to look carefully at your structure. Can you identify what flats sit within discrete blocks? If this is available and accurate it will assist in collection of appropriate linked data. More crucial is what I would call the ‘attribute structure’, information on what components are or could be fitted, what quantities are present, remaining lives, condition and costs. Work out what unique identifier will be the ID or UPRN for each asset (where asset can be rentable or not), and what system it will come from.

In a simplistic way I like to see as few attributes as possible. I find its good for my Ying and Yang, small can be beautiful if carefully formed. I believe every single one needs to pay its way. We should know why we collect each piece of data and what return, report or process it supports. For example, a gas service attribute supports the annual cyclical ‘Gas safe’ certification. Failure of that one to be set up or recorded properly would have critical consequences for your chief exec. Kitchen data will support planned programmes, Decent Homes or Scottish Housing Quality Standard reporting. For a lot of other attributes it’s a big greyer. Where storing data is not justified or you cannot tell what useful information it can be turned into, its best let go. Although it does not appear like it does, every bit of data stored and kept up to date has an associated cost. So trim some of the fat.

The asset team should then design the survey based on your attribute structure in the system. Once the attribute structure supports it we effectively have a place for any piece of data that might be collected for a particular asset. So far so good. Now a map of all fields, data types, codes etc should be generated for the external surveyor to set up their survey around. Most survey companies these days use hand-helds and for each question, say for types, will show dropdowns just with your codes and descriptions in them. Therefore our incoming data will be of the right type of content for our imports.

The next step is to coach your surveyors in what syntax for the incoming data might be. By syntax I mean format, i.e. CSV fixed length, whatever your applications will support. This step can actually work well if carried out really early in the tender process, in order to press this point home.
Chances are that a format per attribute might be needed, with a row per asset or UPRN. Those systems that force lots of redundant columns to be present in the import, if you have got one of those, will be guaranteed to annoy your surveyors. Just ride that one out. There’s nothing more galling than surveying for Welsh Decent Homes and each import has several dozen empty columns for English and Scots versions. Developers can be so lazy sometimes can’t they?

OK the ground work has been done, have a sample of assets (minimum 20) surveyed and test the resultant data will correctly go through the import into your system. If that user acceptance test works, check that your reports reflect the same suggestions (as to replacement costs or ability to pass Decent Homes etc) as your surveyors. Any difficulties here should ring alarm bells.

If you have got to this point, you will be ‘cooking with foil’ as they say. You will have joined that 60% of RSL’s that are on track to get the most from the investment in a robust asset survey. Shame it’s not like the old days when you did a LSVT, Saville’s did a gold plated survey/valuation and you got a free copy of PIMSS.

This has been a proper high speed Pendolino whistle stop tour through this mine field of a subject. If you or your organisation are planning a major asset survey soon or wrestling with an unruly third party assets module, feel free to get in touch. I will do my best to help!

Read on to: Whats your favourite Promaster or Keystone ?

Step Inside This House.

(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting 07854-655009

PS If there are subjects you might like me to tackle on this blog, please get in touch and let me know!

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