The winds of change are blowing through IT and the housing sector – many people would say that’s a good thing and there are those people who would say that it’s ‘situation normal’ in IT. While change is what makes our lives interesting, this period of change is as much about culture and attitude as it is about technology, and that’s causing discomfort in some IT departments.
The role of the ICT manager or head of ICT is undergoing a fundamental change; the old ‘gatekeeper’ role is no longer tenable and IT managers must adapt to roles that are much more about facilitation. Many are already on this path, but some are finding the change difficult because for decades we have been trying to stop all manner of things, such as keeping the bad guys out and preventing the good guys from being distracted by all that time-sapping internet access!
We have already moved a long way from the days of internet access being restricted to the ICT & HR teams (remember that?) and everyone in the housing sector expects unrestricted internet access (within reason), both at their desk and increasingly in the field. This undoubtedly brings its own challenges, but you can’t say “no”.
Internet access policies
I remember early web-filter policies that wouldn’t let staff visit news, sports or any non-work related pages. We even had to restrict recruitment sites for fear that staff would look for other jobs, but they are less likely to do so without draconian access policies! Heaven forbid that anyone visited Facebook in work time, with regular media stories about staff spending days at a time on Facebook and choking up bandwidth (a scarce resource in those days).
Times have changed. Bandwidth, while still precious, is more readily available and our tenants expect to be able to communicate with us via social media. A generation now exists who have grown up with this so we need staff out there on these networks, engaging with tenants.
The benefits of social media in housing is an article in its own right but suffice to say that we can’t expect tenants to engage if our staff don’t, and the staff won’t if they don’t have access. The old time-sapping argument is now obsolete as most people will have internet access on their own devices even if we stop them using ours.
Bring your own device
This brings us to the next change. As well as the internet, we also have to deal with the increasing use of smartphones, tablets and other connected hardware; what do we allow and what do we block? If we open the mail server to company mobile devices, it’s not long before users want access from their own devices. We can (and should) use any of the mobile device management techniques and platforms, but what will you do when a user reports that the kit you gave him can’t get a signal on his patch but his own device can, except that you’ve blocked it…
Start thinking about users bringing their own devices to work (they’re almost certainly already doing so) because if you lead the change, you have a greater chance of keeping things in the open and retaining control of system security. With a robust policy, develop a situation where users are happy because they have kit with which they feel comfortable but you can still stop unauthorised access, data leakage and malware threats, and you may even save money!
Struggling with change
Most ICT managers are seeing these difficulties more frequently, from the service desk to the boardroom. Technology doesn’t spread in hierarchies; you are as likely to find an iPad in the hands of a tradesman as in the hands of a director. Increasingly, our CEOs and senior executives are hearing about the strides others are making with smart devices, BYOD, and social media, and want to do the same. If you’re lucky, they might be aware of the challenges associated with them and listen to your advice on how to get the best out of these concepts safely, but this is unlikely if you are still adopting an old-fashioned ‘gatekeeper’ stance.
What’s the answer?
ICT managers need to find ways of embracing change without compromising security and to find innovative ways not just to allow these technologies into the workplace, but to champion them and educate senior managers and others about their benefits while retaining control of the systems and boundaries which facilitate their use. As mentioned earlier, after decades of “just say no”, this can be a difficult leap to make but the rewards of leading the charge are far greater than being dragged along reluctantly. If it’s your strategy, you will be able to make certain that timescales are realistic to allow the necessary changes to be made to security policies and systems in a safe and controlled manner.
Many of your colleagues who espouse the new media revolution don’t fully understand it or its implications so use your technical knowledge to great advantage here, and if you have someone who is keen and who really understands, get them on board early and use their expertise as well.
It’s not just about the technology so champion the different benefits to end-users, the business and tenants. These are the factors that drive engagement, both inside the organisation and outside with tenants, suppliers and other stakeholders. People won’t follow you just because you want them to; they have to see a tangible benefit. I’ve even had users who refused to charge their company mobile overnight because they didn’t want to pay for the electricity, so they’re not likely to use their own mobile device for work unless you can demonstrate how it benefits them.
So what next?
- Education – the benefits of education cannot be overstressed. This is complex and challenging so you need to understand what’s going on by taking advantage of seminars, conferences and webinars to keep yourself up-to-date on the latest thinking. The blogosphere is full of articles about these topics, take the time to read them – and do it at work to practice what you preach!
- Communicate – talk to other ICT managers to find out what they are doing. We are fortunate that the relative lack of competition between housing providers means that most ICT managers are happy to share what they are up to and how they are dealing with current challenges. And if you aren’t a member of a housing IT forum, join one as these are excellent places for exactly these sorts of discussions.
- Engage – take the plunge if you haven’t already done so because how can you champion otherwise? Get a Twitter account and look at other housing providers’ Facebook pages as they give you good ideas about what works well. Try connecting some mobile devices to your network (for more than just email & calendar) and try them with selected members of staff to see if you can identify where they would make a real difference.
- Create a cross-functional team including your head of PR/marketing and your head of housing, but remember you need people who can commit time, not just make decisions.
If we are in the driving seat, we still have control, and we do need to keep hold of security, even if it looks different…
Mike Eckersley is a senior consultant at Capita.