Towards the end of 2010, Severnside Housing and Shropshire Housing Group created an initiative to partner on the delivery of IT services to both organisations, now known as unITe Solutions.
The original intention of the initiative was to provide IT resource-sharing for skills transfer, procurement savings and value for money by having greater buying power. This included having a joint IT strategy and common working practices, due to the similar size, structure and geographic spread of both organisations.
Severnside Housing has two offices in Shrewsbury that manage around 5,000 properties, employs 240 staff, and has an electrical contracting business and a homelessness division. And in partnership with Social Telecoms, Severnside set up a Digital Den which helps with local digital inclusion.
Shropshire Housing manages 4,500 properties and employs 290 staff, alongside its Total Response business for in-house and private repairs work, and is a partner of the Sustain Consortium, providing supported services to in-house and private customers.
Accepting shared IT services
In order to deliver a collaborative IT service that met the original objectives, a number of challenges had to be overcome, including a lack of understanding among the various businesses of what a shared IT service meant in reality and the on-going acceptance of a shared IT service. To deliver a shared service, we had to prioritise tasks and allocate resources accordingly; this led to one business or another feeling there was an unequal service and that one was getting greater benefit from the relationship than the other.
To overcome this, we spent a lot of time making services transparent by improving communication for upcoming projects, forthcoming changes and current issues, as well as reporting on the time spent across each business delivering the IT service. Success and buy-in was primarily achieved through consistent communication to position unITe as a business partner that helps meet the organisations’ business objectives, while making changes through evolution rather than revolution. The other challenges that we faced were very widespread, and included:
IT & business alignment
The IT strategies of both organisations had limited alignment with their respective business objectives. To overcome this, we did a complete review of both Shropshire Housing and Severnside Housing’s corporate plans, with additional reviews of each directorate’s key objectives and issues. The results of these were prioritised to give a roadmap of deliverables. These were used to identify where common solutions could be implemented. A key element to the success of the strategy has been the theming of services into readily understandable sections that show where benefit will be realised.
Service delivery & performance
The policies and procedures that governed IT deliverables and working practices meant that service delivery and performance were below that expected within the business. To address this, the unITe team reviewed the services offered, what the expectations were and what service levels should be delivered. The results were new service level agreements (SLAs) and policies, and targets set for key performance indicator (KPI) measures. By regularly reviewing performance against the KPIs and SLAs, performance has increased significantly for the delivery of projects and helpdesk services. An additional element to improving services has been the regular review of customer satisfaction with the service unITe provides.
Staff and training
At first, working as an enlarged team across more locations and supporting different business needs resulted in the team being stretched and not understanding differing setups. This affected the initial rollout of the combined service. By focusing effort on staff locations and cross training, issues were overcome while the strategy and planning cycle was in motion.
At the same time, both Shropshire Housing and Severnside Housing have expanded and diversified their services. This has meant an increase in the number of employees, locations and service types being supported. By improving the IT services and working to structured processes, we can support many more staff and locations without having increased the number of IT staff.
Technological differences, deficiencies with some solutions, and some incomplete implementations have been replaced with many common solutions, such as the single internet-based telephony system being used by both organisations. By rolling out common solutions, we have reduced the support requirements by having a single technology with reduced costs involved for licensing, implementation and maintenance.
Digital inclusion & customer service
In order to address digital inclusion, we have worked with our IT suppliers and have also now expanded the unITe team to deliver community-based IT services to customers, thus diversifying our own area of work and providing a wider-reaching IT service.
Meanwhile, customer service initiatives to drive improvements for external customers have resulted in greater demands on the use and availability of IT services. The thirst for information can shape the service offered to customers, and the need for timely information has resulted in a complete shift in how information is delivered to the businesses. There is now a dashboard and exception-based reporting solution that shows trends and issues. This gives us the ability from within systems to now quickly find information about customers through a single ‘hub’ that shows information from various back-office systems.
In addition, ever-increasing internal staff expectations are such that demands on technologies and services have increased. This has come about through the increasing consumerisation of IT and the expectation that all services should be accessible remotely and via multiple devices. This has been addressed by providing hardware that is relevant to the role of the employee, and enabling systems that are accessible externally, while maintaining security.
Having gone through the development of a shared IT service, there have been many learning points that can be used in the future should our collaborative work be expanded. The key learning points are focused on communication, service and people, not the technologies that are used. In summary, to achieve a shared collaborative service:
Ensure consistent and timely communication of change and status of service to enable buy-in to the services offered and to achieve the ultimate success of a shared service.
Take small steps to change so that services and solutions evolve and can be understood.
Spend time with IT staff to ensure they are up to date with changes, able to promote changes and are comfortable dealing with people and technologies at differing locations to provide a consistent and professional service.
Spend time with key staff within the partnering organisations to ensure the future direction for IT is in line with corporate objectives, and that the services offered are relevant to supporting business services.
Develop a common strategy that considers the individual needs of each company while giving an overall common direction that is implementable, supportable and cost effective.
Create an identity and brand for the promotion of IT services for a sense of belonging for the IT team and to give a common point of contact for all staff across all organisations.
Andrew Dale is head of IT at Shropshire Housing Group, and Ian Pritchard is the IT manager at Severnside Housing.