Housing providers’ digital transformation projects could be at risk due to the challenge of recruiting and retaining the right skills. Tim Cowland, a senior consultant at Socitm Advisory, looks at how the sector is responding.
Staffing, upskilling and retention
One issue that consistently comes up in the conversations that we have with senior housing professionals is the difficulty they have of attracting and retaining the right skills in their organisations to deliver digital transformation and change projects.
The market has become increasingly employee-led. Since the pandemic, staff have more flexibility and choice on where they work as geographical barriers are broken down. Furthermore, wages are rising for those who have the skills to deliver digital change and people can now choose to work for organisations who better understand the value of their role. Put simply, people with the right skills for digital transformation projects don’t want to work for leaders who fail to understand the power of data and digital.
As skills become more in demand and wages increase, smaller organisations and digital teams find recruitment and retention particularly difficult. In response, many are turning to a policy of ‘grow your own’ to develop existing members of staff or those with limited skills, with the government’s ‘apprenticeship levy’ becoming an increasingly attractive way of investing in team members.
Focusing on transformation
Housing providers have also told us that it’s becoming more difficult to get team members to leave their day-to-day roles to work on change programmes. Many organisations have traditionally used this method so that staff seconded from within can bring additional contextual knowledge to a project team and provide continuity when a project closes. However, this approach also has its disadvantages; for example, when existing staff are brought into business change teams, it can leave gaps in other parts of the business and the quality of services offered to customers can suffer.
When there is pressure on staff resources, change is often rushed, resulting in long-standing, clumsy work-arounds or missing functionality. Change programmes can become fragmented and outcomes that might benefit one part of an organisation might have a negative impact on another part.
Implementing effective change takes time and this time isn’t always readily available, especially in smaller organisations. A further risk is that these smaller teams often lack a project management office to provide effective governance on change projects.
Leaders and organisational structure
How an organisation’s leadership team approaches the digital agenda is becoming increasingly important. We often find that there are legacy reasons for where IT and digital sit within an organisation and that they are rarely well-represented at the top.
Traditional structures are holding organisations back, and too often IT and digital teams aren’t integrated into the wider running of the business. This can result in siloed ways of working and a focus on tactical, short-term matters rather than building a wider digital strategy and road map that will meet strategic business objectives.
This is nothing new. In all my years managing and advising in relation to digital, data and technology services, there have always been criticisms that “we’re pulled this way and that” to respond to ever-changing users’ demands, without there ever being a strategic roadmap in place. This needs to change, and it starts with developing a more detailed understanding of the technical issues and support within executive teams. Without this, we see organisations exposed to a variety of risks and missing out on innovation.
Adopting innovation and technology
It’s clear that many leadership teams and boards want to adopt technology but often don’t understand the detail and wider implications, including the strategic opportunities and risks. For this reason, there is a growing demand for at least one board member to have a digital portfolio. Many organisations are also now employing a chief information officer (even if only on a part-time basis) to bring digital skills to the boardroom.
This isn’t always achievable for smaller organisations. As a consequence, we’re now receiving a growing number of requests to provide this expertise ‘as a service.’ As a vendor-neutral partner, this involves us advising boards and executive teams on digital matters without the overhead of retaining full-time members of staff or working alongside existing staff members in development roles to upskill them to create and shape a resilient future team.
As organisations wrestle with the problem of attracting and retaining staff in the current circumstances, the ‘as a service’ model is becoming increasingly popular. It enables boards and executive teams to implement the technical and change skills needed in a more cost-effective way while reducing risk and avoiding the mistakes that other housing providers have made before them.
Tim Cowland is a senior consultant at Socitm Advisory.