Housing Technology interviewed Mark Woosey, group IS director for Network Housing Group, on large-scale IT change programmes, cloud computing and virtualisation, and the difficulty of finding the right staff.
What are your IT goals for the next twelve months, and what are your longer-term goals?
Network Housing Group is working on the largest portfolio of systems and infrastructure developments since its formation in 1974. The 2012 program significantly steps up our push to make further improvements to front-line customer services and back-office performance.
This year we will complete a WAN replacement project, enabling several dependant projects including the consolidation of our telephony onto our core Cisco platform. The group’s twinned call centres will gain improved call routing and business continuity and will be supported by the responsive repairs system. A new CRM solution will further improve the quality and efficiency of this part of our business operations. Infrastructure changes will include the relocation of our secondary internal data centre to a third-party provider during early 2012.
Among the larger projects will be an overhaul of procurement processes and systems, including investment in new software to support the full procurement lifecycle. Changes to systems used in HR and Development are moving out of their planning phases and will be a large part of the work-plan.
An updated information systems strategy is being developed; the major shifts will be to improve communications with our customers and, I expect, to mobile and web-based solutions within the next couple of years.
What are the business drivers underpinning your IT plans?
There are two primary goals – improvements to services and greater efficiencies to enable cost reductions. Our IS program is therefore centred on projects which deliver or enable these core areas.
Can you give us a snapshot of your IT ‘estate’?
Our information services department provides business systems development including training, service desk support, engineering and procurement.
The core systems are a Northgate housing management system linked to Kirona mobile working software for responsive repairs and Integrator for scheduled repairs. Document management is from Serengeti, Sun Accounts for finance, Real Asset Management for asset management, FiDo for purchasing and Microsoft Office for the desktop.
Our infrastructure is a Citrix Zen virtual desktop primarily delivered on Wyse thin clients through a VMware estate on HP servers and a Compellent SAN. Printing is on HP printers and Ricoh MFDs with Cisco switches, firewalls and telephony. Everything is replicated on an external disaster recovery site.
Can you describe some of your biggest IT projects to date, and any useful tips or lessons learned from them?
My background is in systems design, development and implementation, and global infrastructure management. Two large programmes were the replacement of a credit card system and the consolidation and relocation of several international businesses to a new European headquarters.
These larger projects emphasised the need for clear objectives and a well-understood business case; both need to be underpinned by the support of the sponsor so stakeholder management is always important. These lessons apply equally to any size of project. Proactive risk management and good planning are both key, but the glue is frequently good communication – making sure the team is working on the right things together.
What has been your best IT decision, and your worst?
A good decision was creation of a medium-term strategy for systems and infrastructure at Network Housing Group. Through this strategy, we radically reduced the cost base and improved availability and reliability, and did so with minimal disruption to business services.
One of the most visible aspects of the strategy was the implementation of a virtualised infrastructure several years ago, but not at the leading edge, so we avoided the pitfalls of the earliest adopters and could learn from their experiences.
We extended the same model in our long-term strategy to support the business’ growth and change program and through it we are delivering a more reliable desktop experience which combines very high availability and performance with low TCO. Users like the thin-client set-up and the service desk staff rarely have to deal with hardware problems (which are around 90 per cent fewer than before).
What is your opinion of the IT suppliers in housing – what do they do well and what could they do better?
Housing is both a service and property management business. Many established suppliers have software focused on the property side of the operation but today’s challenge is delivering integrated, cost-effective, customer-centric systems to connect customers and property management.
A significant challenge for suppliers with legacy systems based on older technologies is integrating them economically into today’s real-time, online world. The proliferation of new applications which plug the gaps in traditional housing systems is good news but their integration at a reasonable cost to allow a sensible ROI on new systems is also a particular challenge for the market.
What are the most exciting technology developments on the horizon?
At the moment, it’s hard to not mention cloud computing in this context and there’s certainly a lot to offer there. We use cloud computing extensively and are working on ‘next-generation plans’ to help deliver quicker and more economic business change; cloud computing will be an important factor in delivering these changes.
Mobile technologies offer huge possibilities although we still have some way to go to understand how to take best advantage of their potential for service improvement and delivery to our customers. Mobile solutions (particularly smartphones and tablets), through which customers will access services, are a very exciting prospect and we believe this will be significant during the next few years.
What are you doing about digital exclusion?
Network Housing Group is providing wireless network access in some of its smaller schemes and internet access directly in some of the larger communal areas of the Group’s bigger properties.
What keeps keep you awake at night?
Recruitment – our staff turnover is low but despite today’s recruitment market, it remains as challenging as ever to find staff with the right levels of skill.