Housing Technology interviewed Keith Woolley, director of technical services at Home Group, to find out about the housing provider’s ambitious IT transformation plans, as well as its 200+ business application and 268 databases…
What are your IT goals for the next twelve months?
Simplifying our business processes and opening a new customer service centre are at the top of the list. The new service centre has meant that we have completed a massive integration of our new CRM system with our existing housing management systems. The service centre will start with 40 staff but we plan to make it up to its full capacity of 137 staff by the end of our financial year.
So, the first challenge will be getting the CRM system operational and then see how it affects our field-based workers, with a view to simplifying the technology to make mobile working completely intuitive. Instead of having a forms-based application on the mobile device, it will be more of a presentation of information on the mobile device.
What will the new customer service centre mean in terms of new lines of business or new revenue streams?
While I am sure it will eventually result in new business areas and new revenues, its primary purpose is to help improve customer service – we really want to be comparable to companies like Marks & Spencer and Tesco when it comes to customer service. If we achieve that, then I’m sure new developments and revenues will naturally follow.
What are your long-term goals?
From an IT point of view, I am a business enabler so we need to make sure that as we see what the business is trying to do, we are streamlining and reducing costs. Our long-term goal is to substantially streamline the plethora of business applications, ideally down to just one application. That may not be possible, but at least that’s the target, and in doing so we will simplify and consolidate the processes related to that technology.
We have a very aggressive plan that within five years we would like to have a single application with services that are accessible anywhere and can be streamed to any device, so you get the same customer experience whether you contact our service centre, visit our website, or download an application onto your mobile device. We will then take that into our neighbourhoods and making sure that when one of our housing officers is actually onsite, they can have exactly the same information at their fingertips as the service centre and that all interactions are updated in real time.
How is Home Group structured?
Home Group has around 57,000 properties under management, and that’s the first of three key parts to our business. The second is care and support, through Stonham which is the UK’s largest provider of social care for disadvantaged adults, where we are typically looking after around 16,000 people at any one time. The third area is property development where, for example, we currently have preferred bidder status in a 25-year reinvestment project in Gateshead with 19 phases of house building.
What have been the business drivers affecting your IT plans?
As I said before, we’re very focused on being enablers for the business. The long-term business goals are to improve customer service and increase customer satisfaction. Part of that means really ‘sweating our IT assets’ to make sure they’re easy to use and cost-effective to deploy. Our network now spans more than 560 locations across the UK – managing that network so that we deliver a high quality of service on it while making sure that its cost is sustainable is the challenge the IT team face every day.
Home Group has an enormous IT estate – what does it comprise?
Well, we are currently running more than 200 line of business applications and 268 databases. I think I can truthfully say that we have over a billion records and 57 terabytes of data that we’re managing on a daily basis!
We have four people looking after the network across our 560 locations, a systems team of 12 providing organisation-wide customer and support services and an internal helpdesk with eight people dealing with 45,000 support calls.
We measure ourselves against the peer group average for the services we offer, how we offer them and at the price point we offer them at given the quality. Recently we have been benchmarked by one of the world’s leading IT providers as being £2 million pounds cheaper than those providing similar services within comparable organisations.
What has been your biggest IT decision?
We moved to a virtualised environment when virtualisation was still quite new. Although as an ‘early adopter’ we were quite nervous, virtualisation has allowed us to simplify our IT processes. We now have 20 per cent of the hardware we had pre-virtualisation and we are now much more agile as well as delivering 100 per cent up-time on key business applications.
When we built our data centre in 2007, it had all 26 server racks fully populated whereas now at least 50 per cent of the rack space is now free. Having capacity within our own data centre gives us scope to grow to accommodate our own needs as well as the potential to resell our services in future.
And what has been the worst IT decision?
When you want to run a network across 560 locations from a centralised data centre, make sure that you look at what the customer experience is going to look like at the other end and don’t make any assumptions about how your applications will perform. We assumed how it would look with the networks in place and then found out that the reality was rather different so we had to go back and do a lot of tweaking and upgrading.
You can lose business credibility if you’re expecting an application to be very efficient and then a user is staring at a white screen for minutes at a time. So network optimisation and understanding how something is going to perform is something that we mistakenly took for granted.
How do housing providers differ from other organisations in terms of IT?
My background is in global outsourcing in the commercial sector. When I came to the housing sector, I found that everything has to be tried, tested and vouched for before we could adopt – everything was a bit ‘clunky’. And as I found in several instances, having servers simply sitting on the floor is not a professional way to deliver IT in business!
When I joined Home Group, the senior executives had already realised that we needed to make significant investments but were surprised to find out that they needed to make multi-million pound investments to rationalise and streamline the IT infrastructure. However, to their credit, they took a radical decision in 2005 to break away from the past and run our IT as if it was commercial environment. They invested heavily and trusted us that we were actually future-proofing Home’s core business activities. This investment has now paid off.
What is your opinion of the IT suppliers in housing?
The primary suppliers are really working hard to find the right solutions for the sector but, in my opinion, the problem for some of those companies is that their products are based on old technologies. They are now struggling to migrate to a new online-anywhere digital world and it will take a massive investment to move their products into this environment.
What advice would you give others trying to deliver large IT transformation projects?
Keep it simple. Describe the business problem, try to keep the technology out of the discussion and explain the processes which would make their business more effective. You need to take your technology and translate it into business terms and keep it very, very simple and make sure you break the problem down – people don’t want to be bamboozled by IT, they want to be supported by it.