One of the things I think our sector suffers from is the belief that it is inherently different from all other sectors. But from my point of view, all sectors need to adopt technologies that allow and facilitate growth. In a commercial world, businesses are driven by profit and the need to deliver returns for shareholders. For the housing sector, it’s just as much about returns but for our customers.
When we look carefully, we see that housing providers are similar to any other businesses of the same scale with as large a customer-facing workforce. We have back-office, CRM and mobile technologies; the main difference is our need for specialist tenancy and housing asset management systems. Having said that, I’ve previously worked for two other asset-heavy organisations, BAA (a big property company which happens to provide parking space for aeroplanes) and UK Power Networks (a company that looks after a lot of assets that happen to need cyclical and responsive repairs). So, again I ask myself, why do we in the housing sector think we are so different from the rest of the commercial world?
What does this have to do with the cloud?
As a business under pressure to transform and adopt more commercial practices, deliver technology improvements with greater agility and a desire to modernise its technology, the idea of leveraging commoditised services is a no-brainer. Why would we want to run our own datacentres? Why do we want infrastructure staff spending their time lugging back-up tapes around, replacing broken disks or replacing hardware on a rolling cycle? Yes, all of these things undoubtedly offer value to our business, but to what end? Surely greater value is gained by freeing up our expertise to work with our colleagues to identify and deliver perhaps the new mobile working technology they need or work out how we can protect our data better. We must focus on how we can help the business deliver its objectives through the use of new technologies and how we can bring an element of consumerisation driven by the choice of the business.
Our aim is not about reducing headcount. More, it’s about making the most of our resources as an organisation and ensuring that we have the appropriate skills to support a ‘cloud first’ business. From the perspective of a technology department, it’s more granular. We need to implement a departmental culture that supports innovation and is driven by the need to deliver business outcomes. For us, it’s about delivering real business value for both our internal and external customers and enhancing both the internal and external customer experience.
The strategic use of and proliferation of cloud services allows us to get from our as-is state to our target state faster, more securely and with more innovative technology. It enhances our ability to work anywhere and collaborate more effectively. Simple things such as the ability to edit a document online can make a huge difference. This is crucial for a business like ours which has recently transformed its operating model to ensure colleagues who are customer-facing are indeed truly customer-centric. This community of colleagues, making up a large percentage of our overall staff base, doesn’t use all of the expensive kit installed in our datacentres. Accordingly, we know that our technology delivery model must change. Our colleagues need to access the data essential to do their jobs from wherever they are and over whichever network connectivity they have access to, whether that’s 3 or 4G, public wi-fi or a coffee shop’s network. We have an absolute commitment to move to a model that supports this. We believe this should be delivered via cloud services.
Furthermore, a major challenge for any modern business is disaster recovery. It’s vital to have a clear plan for how to keep operating in such a scenario. The move to cloud-provisioned services, particularly from large-scale trusted organisations such as Microsoft, goes a long way towards mitigating the risks for any business. We feel confident that our services are replicated many more times than we can manage across geographies, knowing that our staff can access services from wherever they are.
Are there any problems with cloud?
Cloud undoubtedly has some perceived risks. Security and the financial nature of ‘as a service’ are the two major issues that seem to drive the most analysis.
In my opinion, the security question is a red herring, particularly when it comes to comparing the physical security we can offer vs. that offered by the Microsofts of the world. Access to data hosted in the cloud is arguably more problematic, but we feel that this would still be an issue whether our content was hosted by us or by a third party. The real issue is the mobilisation of colleagues and the human nature of people leaving laptops, tablets and phones on buses and trains, but we’re confident that we can address these concerns through procedural and technical controls.
We aim to align to the ISO27000 set of standards. More specifically, we will be initiating a programme to deliver this. An important early deliverable of this programme will be identity and access management to support a larger-scale mobilisation of staff. On a more specific technical note, we’ve seen massive improvements in the security capabilities of Microsoft Azure-based services. This gives us comfort that we can restrict access to our data as needed and on many levels of authentication.
Financially, we know the business model changes; it moves us away from capex to opex, but we don’t see this as holding us back. We are fortunate in having an understanding and cooperative finance team who want us to deliver solutions for the business based on a value rather than cost model. We will work closely with them to ensure we are apportioning costs appropriately during the delivery phase of this programme.
What is our target?
We’ve already started some of our move by delivering Microsoft Dynamics 2016 Online. This allows us to become more customer centric, together with Dell’s Boomi integration platform as a service which integrates our on- and off-premise solutions. By 2018, our target is to move all on-premise services to a mixture of Microsoft Office 365 for end-user productivity solutions and Microsoft Azure infrastructure and/or platform as a service for everything else. We intend to shut down our datacentres completely. To support our target, we intend to select a preferred cloud delivery partner, a trusted organisation with experience of doing this many times before, to help us make the right decisions about our applications and to work with our internal teams to move us as rapidly and safely as practical. We’re very confident this is the right move for the group.
That move will also help us to replace our core finance and HR solutions, with the intention of deploying software as a service solutions. It’s unlikely we’ll make a wholescale move to ERP until we are satisfied it has settled down in the sector, but we are looking closely at the merits of integrating the Microsoft Dynamics 365 stack into our housing management and asset management solutions. When ERP matures, we may look again.
Our number one technology principle is now cloud first: we will adopt cloud service providers when responding to new requests and leverage the benefits of ‘as a service’ solutions.
Cloud should not be feared; it should be embraced and we are not so different after all.
Mark Lyons is head of service strategy & portfolio for Southern Housing Group.