The merger of Two Castles Housing and Derwent & Solway Housing to form the 7,000-home Castles & Coasts Housing in July 2017 involved a range of IT challenges; some specific to the project and others that all M&A programmes will face.
Shaw Consulting was engaged to manage the IT workstream of the merger on behalf of TCHA, a role which involved close liaison with the IT teams at both TCHA and D&S. With the merger date fixed there was no scope for any delay in the integration of the IT systems and the associated data transfers; a working system had to be ready for day one of Castles & Coasts’ existence.
Managing the data transfer
One of the major challenges, both in terms of the tight deadline and the complexity of the work, was the transfer of the data from the D&S systems into the equivalent TCHA systems in a way that ensured they operated smoothly following the changeover date. The scope of work encompassed 20 applications, including such business-critical areas as the housing management, document management and finance systems.
The transfer was complicated by the fact that the corresponding TCHA and D&S systems were different, making the implementation of effective data conversions key to the successful delivery of the project. This is a problem that anyone managing the IT stream of a housing merger is likely to encounter and is one that can be solved by bringing in expert resources.
We introduced a specialist data company to the project in order to build and execute the data conversion routines. This proved to be a hugely effective choice, particularly in dealing with the large volumes of data extracted from the D&S housing management system and transferred to the TCHA set-up.
One less technical aspect of the data-transfer element was communication between the various parties involved. On top of the strict timescales, the large team of internal staff, external suppliers and consultants added to the complexity of the project.
It was essential that strong working relationships were established with both the team responsible for extracting the data and with the suppliers of the D&S systems, making certain that the THCA team had a thorough understanding of the data that would need to be imported.
This kind of teamwork was a key feature of all aspects of the project, with the TCHA and D&S IT staff and external consultants all appreciating the importance of sharing information, coordinating schedules and working efficiently to deliver on deadline.
The management of the transfer of crucial data such as customer records and asset registers was only one element of the project to create a functioning IT set-up for Castles & Coasts. There was also the infrastructure to consider; the things that staff almost take for granted, but without which they would struggle to carry out even the most basic of day-to-day tasks.
The preparation needed to guarantee a working service on day one included increasing server capacity to accommodate the new users transferring from D&S, and coordinating the installation of new data lines in the D&S offices and connecting them to the TCHA infrastructure. Another practical step was to ensure that all staff members had the PCs and desktop devices they needed to do their jobs on day one, along with access to adequate multi-function devices.
Changes to the provision of phones were also an important consideration in Castles & Coasts’ plans to deliver an uninterrupted service to its customers. We had to ensure that the phone system had sufficient capacity to accommodate the D&S staff, while mobile contracts and sim cards had to be organised for the members of the D&S team who needed them.
With all of the infrastructure changes, the key was to identify the requirements and which teams needed to do each task as early as possible, before drawing up a timeline for the work to be completed.
Day one essential processes
Part of the brief we were given by TCHA was to ensure that a minimum day one functionality was achieved to allow Castles & Coasts to provide acceptable service levels to customers of the merged businesses. The potential for reputational damage from not having systems ready for the opening day was substantial, with the possibility of customers’ first interaction with the new housing provider seeming chaotic due to staff not having the equipment and systems available to deal with enquiries or problems.
In order to avoid that scenario, one of the first things we did was to draw up a list of essential processes that had to be in place for day one to provide at least the minimum functionality needed for the business to operate. This fed into the scheduling, with focus placed on the tasks that would guarantee the essential processes were in place on the cut-over date.
We worked closely with the D&S team to make certain they understood exactly what was required, and also produced a checklist for the TCHA team that emphasised the important jobs to be completed in order to achieve all of the essential processes. These early steps were backed by an ongoing communication plan for the duration of the project, which saw a comprehensive highlight report created and shared each week to ensure that all parties were clear on progress and their next steps, responsibilities and deadlines.
We reviewed the report with TCHA’s senior management team each week, to keep them fully informed of the state of the workstream and allow them to make priority calls where needed.
The end result was that the systems were up and running from the merger date and staff were able to perform their duties without disruption. The data was safely converted from the D&S systems and imported into the TCHA systems, while the required infrastructure and desktop systems were operational.
As a final step of what the Castles & Coasts management team regarded as a successful project, we held a number of post-merger feedback sessions that allowed incoming staff to document any minor issues they were experiencing. This information was used to create a prioritised issue list for the new business’s IT function to resolve.
Planning and communication
The successful delivery of this project on time was due largely to careful planning, a willingness to bring in third-party specialists to undertake critical tasks where appropriate and, perhaps most importantly, the time invested in developing communications channels with all stakeholders. That ensured everyone was kept informed and had a clear idea of what they had to do to ensure Castles & Coasts had functioning systems from day one.
Chris Shaw is the managing director of Shaw Consulting.