Should the IT team be ‘in it together’ too? Is looking inwards and having the ear of senior management one approach?
We have passed another Christmas and another autumn statement from George Osborne extending our period of austerity. The phrase ‘we are all in it together’ is banded about yet again, but in IT teams and departments across social housing and local authorities, I believe this is being taken just a bit too literally. In several local authorities in the past year, I have heard the same line – that IT needs to take the same cuts as other teams. I am now beginning to hear this more and more from housing providers as well, particularly with universal credit just down the line. IT budgets would therefore appear to be under increasing pressure.
This goes against the experience of implementing decent solutions and delivering measurable benefits. The crux of the matter is that it is rarely within the IT team that benefits actually accrue, such as efficiency gains, staff savings, reductions in paper usage or lower mileage claims. It is therefore essential that the IT team has a conduit to senior management and can communicate this state of affairs in the current economy. Directors and accountants can be polarised by the size of the annual cost racked up within the IT team and the IT infrastructure. From looking at the raw figures, it is impossible to determine whether a £20,000 annual saving in IT might mean the difference between a four-hour fix or a two-day fix. If that happens to be a major server with ten or more virtual machines on it, that might result in a hundred members of staff being disrupted for a couple of days and spending two more days catching up on un-entered data. The cost of that could easily be more than £20,000, plus the service issues that might also result.
‘Silver bullet’ applications
It’s a sad fact that many ‘silver bullet’ applications sneak into organisations by the back door rather than through the one labelled ‘IT Team’. If you have worked in that environment for more than a couple of years, you will start to smile now. You will have certainly been asked “Do we have a server to install this on?” or “How do we connect our new ‘silver bullet’ solution to the housing management system to duplicate some data?” Salespeople are very wily and know perfectly well that the easiest path to the sale is rarely through the IT team’s door. However, a lot of expenditure like this will go through a senior management team, thereby providing an opportunity for the senior manager in IT to head a lot of this off at the pass.
Many of these ‘silver bullet’ solutions can be accommodated perfectly well within most integrated housing management systems that you already have and pay an annual arm and a leg for. Now I am sure it may not be as sexy for the data-entry staff to use, but there is the prospect of coordinated reporting from fewer databases, better visibility in CRM and other benefits well beyond the team using it. Review every request for a new application and match off its functionality with what you already have; the gap analysis may identify more configuration, development or chargeable amendments, but you might find that you had a ‘silver bullet’ on your hands all along.
Internal IT reviews
While we are looking inwards, which is no bad thing anyway, a review of some key areas and how all that expensive software and technology is being used on the ground would be in order. If it’s all ticking over nicely and no-one is complaining, it’s certain to be all ‘tickity-boo’, isn’t it? The reality is typically very different. In my experience, it is well worth using observers to watch staff perform their jobs; staff will openly reveal all the work-arounds they regularly use, those spreadsheets and other duplications. As one of many examples, iPads able to connect within a minute via Citrix and 3G with the main system were being used by staff during scheme visits merely as rests for paper notepads on which they made hand-written notes which would be keyed in by administrative staff sometime in the next few days. What message does that send to your tenant? Not “I care and I will make sure that we are on top of your issue or concern straight away”. If this took more than a day, there’s a good chance that a wrongly-addressed letter might be sent. How galling is that, when your housing officer was only in your kitchen talking about your name change two days ago?
Another example was the use of spreadsheets to monitor case-based activities instead of an existing integrated case management module as it was “too clunky”. The fact that front-office staff using CRM were blind to ASB and complaint cases caused frustration for them and residents alike.
We haven’t even touched on reporting either. Excel is undoubtedly one of the best applications ever written, but in general where you find spreadsheets on your network, you will find waste and duplication too. While users will seemingly fight to the death to keep their spreadsheets, that information should only be in the main integrated system, in as few places as possible. Eliminating spreadsheets reduces mistakes (wrong letters sent out to deceased tenants, etc), focuses use and ownership on the main systems and the incentive for lead users to drive these forward and the relationships with your suppliers. This can be through user groups or via bespoke development that can possibly be shared with other organisations with similar needs.
Supplier user groups
I am always disheartened when IT staff tell me that they no longer attend their suppliers’ user groups. The common refrain is that they went in the past but could see little progress so they stopped attending. Surely that just makes it worse? When the majority of users attend user groups and other similar events, change does happen as suppliers can then recognise the depth of feeling and before long they have to act on it. If more than 70 per cent of a supplier’s customers are knocking on their door with similar gripes or concerns, most decent suppliers will be accommodating – they have to be.
In summary, if I were a senior IT executive, in the current economy I would be paying attention to some of the following:
- Ensure that IT is properly represented on your organisation’s senior management team. As the Americans say “grow some” to fight for and articulate the wider benefits that justify increased IT expenditure.
- Look inwards to further sweat the expensive applications you already have. Put ‘spreadsheets beyond use’. Encourage or force members of staff to use existing integrated functionality which in turn benefits the wider organisation.
- Get someone to examine what end-users really do to complete their jobs every day, and target training and other programmes as remedies.
- Start an ‘Arab Spring’ and make your voice heard at your suppliers’ user groups. Spread the word to others and leverage better value from your core IT application investments and suppliers.
Tony Smith is an independent housing IT consultant at Acutance Consulting.