‘Digital transformation’ has existed as a mainstream term in the IT sector for a long time, and before that, the phrase used was ‘channel shift’. Both are terms for a project or strategy taken on by an organisation to change the way either it provides services to customers or how the staff interact into a new more efficient medium using technology. That has taken many iterations over the years including moving paperwork into CRM systems, mobile working, encouraging customers to use web chat instead of phone calls, and more.
I’ve worked in the housing sector for over 12 years and have seen IT make big a difference to the quality of service delivered to tenants through numerous new approaches. However, this has not always been the outcome with every project and I have seen at first-hand projects that have gone awry despite the best intentions.
Sometimes, a project just does not land with the users. It is either too complicated, too steep a learning curve or such a big change that it becomes a white elephant and users end up working around the solution using ‘shadow IT’ or simply going back to how they always did it. In a modern world, where people use technology in new ways all the time in their personal lives, this simply should not be happening with enterprise-level investments in transformational technology.
In my opinion, a lot of it comes down to mindset and approach. By labelling strategies and projects with ‘transformation’ or ‘channel shift’ it is easy to view it as an end goal or a destination that we will reach like any other milestone in a project. Within housing, we must pick and choose where we spend budgets and we simply don’t have the resources to go after ‘transformation’ as an end goal in itself, and nor should we.
Transformation implies a total reimagining of an organisation, from top to bottom, with new ways of working throughout – something that risks “throwing the baby out with bathwater”. We want to continue to support our tenants to live in well-maintained, safe properties and ensure the organisation is paid on time, through universal credit or otherwise. While what we deliver may look totally different in ten years’ time, it is through continuous improvement and incremental changes that will lead to this transformation – not pursuing it through one project alone.
Since moving from the housing sector to software development and Microsoft Dynamics 365 partner cloudThing, I’ve seen IT projects delivered through truly agile methodologies. I believe this approach is still not something mastered in the housing sector, and while individual projects may be labelled as ‘agile’, the true benefits of the approach come from the entire organisation adopting agile to achieve quick wins and incremental steps towards overall transformation.
I have been lucky enough to be involved with customers across multiple sectors and seen at first-hand how a different approach to transformation and IT projects in general can make a dramatic difference to success. Our work with the Chartered Institute of Accountants in England and Wales, as well as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants are big transformational deals lasting multiple years, but these are split into project phases, each with measurable success factors. This granular approach to the big picture as well as the small means that every feature of each solution must be delivering today, while building for tomorrow. This means that if priorities or resources change, we can shift what will be delivered when, while still moving towards the organisation’s overall goals.
Treating transformation like a project managed with a ‘waterfall’ approach is simply never going to achieve the required result. Waterfall relies on agreed and locked-down success factors from top to bottom, and working back from there, which can work with software development but not when applied to a business strategy involving technologies which can change in as little as 12 months. Proclaiming that to transform, an organisation must have 90 per cent of customers interacting with the organisation through digital makes sense as an overall goal, but digital can take so many forms it is in the steps to achieving it that we achieve genuine business value.
With the advent of chatbots, voice assistants, AI and more, technology has never been more accessible to everybody. Siloed projects that deliver these expensive new technologies or services which do not integrate with existing infrastructure often leads to simpler, more cost effective solutions being missed all together. Through modular, incremental improvements, creative SMEs can really help housing providers. Instead of committing budget to a huge, transformational project, starting small and building on each success will ensure user buy-in and a transition to digital that is manageable and built on processes familiar to staff.
What I have seen in my experience in housing is that the success of any project is dependent on an ability to quickly prove its business value to the wider organisation. By taking the approach of building incrementally on existing infrastructure through various pieces of software and integration means that the sector can shift away from a reliance on large, inflexible outsourcing agreements and software to instead deliver fixed-cost, manageable investments with clear goals and minimal risks on the journey to transformation.
By lowering the risk of innovation through smaller ongoing investments means that housing providers are free to test what works and what doesn’t quickly without the worry that jobs are on the line if something fails. Through cloud technology, we are free to spin up and test solutions which were in the realms of science fiction only a decade ago. These projects need no added hardware investment, only some integration work to build into our existing systems, meaning there is no added screens for users, no skills gap for supporting the new hardware – just room to test and see what makes an impact to improving services.
I see this approach as the best way to deal with IT projects going wrong. We must accept that when trying new services, sometimes they will fail. Lowering the risk, and pushing forward searching for the projects that work, is how we will truly transform the sector over time. Working with innovative SMEs to take the best creativity from the SME space, combined with familiar off-the-shelf solutions, is how each housing provider can build an IT Infrastructure that suits their unique needs with minimal risk and investment.
Mike Eckersley is a business architect at CloudThing.