Modern IT is evolving at a faster rate than ever before, and new technologies are transforming services and customer expectations. Almost every organisation is focusing time on digital transformation; whether it’s improved customer communication channels or process automation, everyone is developing new ways of working. This added pressure on IT departments detracts from the management of ‘business as usual’, creating technical debt, unsupported systems and performance problems.
Here at Central, we have recently expanded our products and services with new capabilities to help housing providers through these turbulent, yet exciting times. For over 28 years, we’ve been managing IT on behalf of our customers and have responded to fundamental market changes to meet new IT demands and challenges.
How would you define digital transformation in housing, and what are its benefits?
Digital transformation is primarily about customers; how you can improve services and communications to them and better understand their needs. This creates a drive for new communication channels, more efficient ways of working and a need for increased data and process automation. However, there’s also a growing requirement for employers to create flexible working options for employees and digital strategies need to include toolsets for agile working. Customers benefit from having more communication choices and better service levels; organisations benefit from improved efficiency and customer understanding, all with a happier workforce.
Underlying this need for new technology and rapid change is the requirement for effective information security management, IT asset control and a strong technology foundation. Cloud strategies play a key part in enabling this, as do standards such as Cyber Essentials, ISO 27001 and ITIL which help guide organisations through the minefield of risk when adopting new technologies and ways of working.
What new technologies should housing providers be looking at in the short, medium and long terms?
In the short to medium term, providers can look at technology which supplements their legacy housing and CRM systems; tools which they can bolt on to create new communication channels or improve efficiency, but they also need to ensure that their foundations are stable.
First, consider your cloud strategy and move away from ‘traditional’ hosted technology environments. The most obvious move is to Microsoft Office 365, leveraging the power of Microsoft’s latest Office incarnation, while removing the legacy debt of old office systems. If managed correctly, this can provide staff agility and remote working, as well as the latest Microsoft end-user tools such as SharePoint, Teams and PowerApps. These allow organisations to create new workflows and automations and collaborate online without the need for expensive legacy software development or the risk of using email and spreadsheets for business processes.
Look at further removing legacy debt by migrating transactional platforms into cloud environments. Organisations always need to consider the total cost of ownership for their IT when deciding on this approach; cloud-based services remove a distraction for IT departments, allowing them to focus on digital transformation.
Over the medium term, housing providers should consider unified communications; customers expect to communicate by more than just telephone and email. Most retailers or large utilities now offer chatbots, online chat, social media and two-way messaging, setting the benchmark for other service providers. These interactions don’t just benefit the customer; they create added back-office efficiencies, with operators being able to serve multiple customers simultaneously and chatbots automating the answering of basic queries.
In the long term, the use of workflow automation technology and low-code development platforms will transform how back-end software operates for housing providers; ‘strangulation strategies’ enable a low risk, gradual movement away from older, inflexible platforms while increasing efficiency and putting agility into the hands of internal teams. Beyond this, movement away from simple customer records-based CRM to using big data analytics platforms, linked to customer experience management (CX) software and AI will transform how housing providers interact with customers.
Where are the ‘quick wins’ in terms of IT in housing?
Housing providers can quickly gain benefits from Office 365; reduced costs, improved security and gain powerful tools such as Microsoft Teams.
Another way to accelerate digital transformation is to move foundation services such as server and network management, together with internal user support, to a third party. This removes the pain of business as usual and allows you to concentrate on adding value. It also allows for important information security and GDPR considerations to be better managed by dedicated experts.
Utilities such as chatbots don’t require significant integration work and can quickly transform how a customer is serviced while improving internal efficiency at the same time.
It’s also worth looking at your end-to-end processes, asking why you do things and what could you do differently with the technology that’s on offer.
Finally, organisations can begin their cloud journey by migrating non-live services, such as backup and DR replication environments, to AWS or Microsoft Azure.
What has Central achieved for its social housing customers?
Central has a loyal customer base with many long-term partnerships spanning over 10 years. We’re proud to be the technology provider of choice to more than 100 housing providers across the UK and as an independent business, we work with selected partners to offer the very best solutions to our customers.
Examples of this include our recent work with Bromsgrove District Housing, where we successfully migrated its legacy Exchange 2010 system onto the 365 platform. Performing an end-to-end implementation, we took care of all stages including mailbox migration, training, and final decommissioning of the on-premise services. Adopting this approach ensures our customers can have the greatest confidence that their migration will be successful, and they can leverage the full advantages of the platform.
We have also accelerated our public and hybrid cloud offerings. One Manchester uses Veeam Cloud Connect replication to one of our trusted datacentres and Howard Cottage Housing is using full DaaS and IaaS deployments through VMware Horizon Cloud, using our all-flash storage and Fujitsu hosts. This provides the fastest and most resilient deployments, offering instant scalability with no on-premise infrastructure.
How can Central help housing providers?
Central focuses on using its housing knowledge to create the foundations for digital transformation, with an end-to-end strategy: implementation and support services for IT operations, information security, unified communications, cloud, networking and low-code development applications.
We evolve with changes in technology and have developed experience in the following services:
Cloud strategy design and implementation (from basic Office 365 migration to large-scale Azure migration);
An end-to-end information security and risk management service;
New and improved IT support and monitoring services;
Support for roadmap and IT strategy development;
Unified communications solutions;
Consulting to leverage the power of Microsoft collaboration tools such as SharePoint, Teams and PowerApps.
How does Central differ from other housing IT suppliers?
Above all, it’s our people – we consider ourselves to be an extension of our customers’ businesses. We only employ the best people and are dedicated to their continuous development. We gain an in-depth understanding of our clients’ needs, their business and where they are on their digital journeys before creating the solutions needed to support them.
We offer total flexibility; we’re not restricted by a need to support legacy platforms and aren’t tied to a set of specific technology providers. This allows us to develop a set of solutions, no matter how big or small, that are 100 per cent tailored to each organisation.
From implementing basic helpdesk cover to creating a step-change in IT strategy, we offer a transparent, people-first service to match the expectations of our customers.
John Blackburn is the operations director of Central Networks and Technologies.