Housing Technology interviewed Michael Barber, IT director at Peabody, to find out how he has found his first year in the housing sector, running the IT services of one of the UK’s largest housing providers.
What are your IT goals for the next twelve months? And what are your longer-term goals?
Over the next 12 months, my main goal is the replacement of our legacy operational systems with the Aareon QL Housing suite. This will provide functionality for housing management, asset management, CRM and online portals for both residents and contractors. This will all be supplemented with mobile working capability using 1st Touch software.
I also plan to further strengthen the existing IT infrastructure and complete the roll out of Citrix Xen desktop and thin-client devices across the company. This will enable both flexible and remote working by providing access anytime, from anywhere, on multiple devices.
My longer term goals involve the exploitation of all of these solutions to introduce much more self-service, mobile capability and enhanced workflow to better join up the company. This will also involve supporting the delivery of technology to all residents to help them get online.
What are the business demands underpinning your IT plans?
Peabody’s IT strategy has one over-riding business aim: to support the achievement of the goals in our three year business plan. This strategy is fully supported by the Peabody board and its delivery is monitored closely by the senior executive team at Peabody. In my role as chair of the Peabody Operating Committee, I work closely with business colleagues to ensure that the IT strategy is delivering exactly what they need.
The primary business demand is for enhanced customer service. The IT strategy sets out to provide integrated business applications and a stable IT infrastructure that will enable Peabody to better manage its core business processes and provide effective customer interfaces. All of this is targeted at providing a better service for our residents and wider stakeholders.
Can you give us a snapshot of your IT ‘estate’?
The infrastructure comprises VMware vSphere running on HP servers, a Compellent SAN, virtual desktops running on Citrix Xen desktop on HP blades, 10 Zig thin clients, HP MFDs and Cisco switches and firewalls, all fully replicated on an external disaster recovery site.
I would prefer to describe our target IT estate when we are looking at applications – this incorporates Aareon QL Housing, 1st Touch for mobile, Home Connections for choice-based lettings, SharePoint for document management and collaboration, Microsoft Office for desktop applications, SunSystems for finance and Proactis for procurement and purchasing controls.
Can you describe some of your biggest IT projects to date, and any useful tips or lessons learned from them?
The biggest project so far would be the full upgrade of the network and core infrastructure systems, both at our head office and at a remote disaster recovery site. This upgrade has added significant performance and stability improvements to Peabody and is now being extended to a full thin-client rollout and the introduction of Single Sign On identity management.
A key tip for this type of project would be to plan it well, using external consultants as required, to ensure that the final solution is scalable, secure and robust. We also augmented the existing team using contract resources to ensure that this project stayed on schedule and that the ‘business as usual’ activity was not affected. There is no substitute in these projects for good quality planning and execution.
What has been your best IT decision? And your worst?
My best decision was undoubtedly to tender for an application suite to service the majority of Peabody’s end-to-end business processes. Moving away from a ‘best of breed’ strategy with all the inherent complexity of interfacing will certainly provide a solution that is more functional, cost-effective and maintainable in the long term.
My worst decision was probably trying to push for too much, too fast. Business change projects are a significant drain on both IT teams and the business overall, and I have had to slow down some projects to allow us to focus on the core upgrade to the main operational systems.
Do housing providers differ from other companies in terms of IT and if so, how?
In my limited experience, being new to the sector, they do not differ that significantly from those outside the sector. The functionality provided by them services the sector reasonably well but a lot of the solutions on the market are ageing and in bad need of a technology upgrade. As in all areas, there is a mixture of good and not so good.
What is your opinion of the IT suppliers in housing – what do they do well and what could they do better?
The main criticism I have is that they have developed a degree of complacency due to having a closed market and relying on long-established relationships. New entrants to this space are challenging that comfort zone and are forcing all players to look hard at their offerings and to up their game – that can only be a good thing for all housing providers.
What the providers do well is that they really do focus on the sector and provide complete solutions and value-added services for the sector at reasonable prices.
What are the most exciting technology developments on the horizon?
In my view, cloud computing, although no longer new, is improving all the time. More and more secure, functionally-rich, affordable solutions are coming of age and offer a real alternative to the traditional solutions sought by most IT directors. True utility computing is now a reality for an extensive amount of services and is worth exploring.
Anything else you would like to add?
Just that my first year or so in this sector has been great. It is so refreshing to be able to engage openly with peers in other companies and to work together for the improvement of the sector overall. Such a difference from trying to gain intelligence on competitors in the private sector!
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