Welcome to the first of a series of interviews with IT directors at the UK’s largest or most innovative housing organisations. We are starting the series with an exclusive interview with Yvonne Gallagher, the recently-appointed IMS director at Affinity Sutton which manages 53,000 homes from Plymouth in the South West to Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East.
Yvonne Gallagher joined Affinity Sutton as its IMS director in November 2008. Before moving to the housing sector, she worked for the DTI, Network Rail and Prudential so she has experienced the impact of technology across the breadth of central government, the public sector and the private sector.
How does the public sector, and in particular housing, differ from the private sector in terms of technology?
It is interesting that whether I come from the private sector, central government or here [Affinity Sutton], the IT issues are the same. It’s always about what IT can do for the business, how you manage your suppliers, and how IT is both an enabler and an opportunity to influence the organisation’s strategic direction.
It’s less about the differences between the public and private sectors in terms of the end-user organisations and more about the suppliers. So far I’ve found that the technology suppliers to the housing sector seem to be a bit ‘behind the curve’ compared with other industries; I’m surprised that more innovative suppliers have not stepped into this market.
However, the significant issue with housing associations, and certainly Affinity Sutton, is about making the transition from small organisations to large ones. To a certain extent, smaller organisations can afford to rely on people to fill gaps in their processes but once the organisation reaches a certain size, then your systems and processes become much more critical, not only in the IT sense that you can’t afford to let systems fall over, but also critical in terms of how the business moves forward.
How does IT project management differ between the public, private and housing sectors?
Project management has always been very difficult and that’s not going to change, either in the private or the public sector. Related to that, when organisations jumped into outsourcing their technology, there was a certain degree of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The idea that IT suppliers can provide the same degree of influence and discipline around the business in terms of managing the project simply isn’t credible; it’s already difficult enough for in-house IT departments to deliver projects, without the commercial conflicts which external suppliers are inevitably likely to face. Based on my experience, when you have the business and the IT supplier together then that absolutely leads to disaster because the supplier’s attitude is, “I do what I’m told” – that’s the relationship. Ultimately this does not help the business at all.
So I think the management of projects is not better anywhere; it’s difficult everywhere. You really do need your own in-house competence and IT people to manage the business requirements and the suppliers in parallel in a hands-on way. Projects have never been delivered successfully by saying, “Here’s the methodology to abide by and we’ll come back when it’s done”.
What is your overall technology strategy?
Affinity Sutton has been pretty acquisitive over the past few years and that has had a substantial impact on the group’s technology infrastructure, so our major goal this year is to consolidate our IT infrastructure and, more importantly, the systems’ data onto a single platform. We currently have three different versions of Inhouse, each with different data structures, so we’re working closely with the business as we bring the systems together because in doing so we’re bringing the business processes together, so it’s a real IT-enabled business-change project.
The consolidation project is then a vital stepping stone to the next elements of our long-term strategy, which are how we communicate with our residents, how we manage our assets, and how we interact with our suppliers, a large part of which will be looking at how we re-engineer our front-office processes to get more efficiencies and improve the integration and communication between applications.
Our technology plans are also underpinned by a desire to help the environment. Our consolidation plans and our move to the Citrix platform has meant that we have reduced the number of servers, with a consequent reduction in power consumption and cooling.
How about the idea of ‘straight-through processing’, whereby transactions, processes and jobs flow seamlessly between applications?
The key issue for us is the sheer number of interfaces between the different in-house business processes and our external suppliers (which are currently interfacing to three separate businesses), and not so much about how, for example, our housing management and CRM systems communicate with our finance and asset management systems.
That said, we want to become more streamlined and reduce manual operations, but from my point of view there’s nothing suitable on the market at the moment. So, it will be a case of looking at the best-of-breed applications and then working through the process mapping.
What is the perception of IT and technology within Affinity Sutton?
There is an expectation that IT will really make a difference and will be key to driving the strategy forward for the organisation, particularly in terms of improving efficiency. For the IT department to develop, the intention is to get closer to the newly-formed business units and work better with the business leads to develop and realise the group’s business plans and strategy.
The ability to work with and influence the business is absolutely critical for any IT department so stakeholder management is key. We are fortunate that the executive team here is extremely forward looking and highly supportive.
How do you measure of the impact of technology?
There are two related but different ways of measuring the impact of IT on the business. The first concerns areas such as the robustness and reliability of IT services, and its value for money. The second, which is arguably more important, is whether IT-enabled change projects deliver the promised business benefits, whether that’s for in-house staff and processes or for tenant services. For example, our tenant surveys show that we have achieved 80-90 per cent tenant satisfaction over the past year, one of the highest figures in the housing sector.
As a relative newcomer to this sector, how do you rate the technology suppliers?
As I said, I have been surprised by the industry’s acceptance of what in other sectors would be seen as outdated technologies, such as proprietary databases and finance systems without any internal integration, and a certain amount of complacency among the suppliers. I don’t think that it’s normal for suppliers to be way behind your own thinking; they’re usually beating the door down! As it stands, there are a relatively small number of housing-specific technology suppliers, many of which are consolidating, so we all seem to be using the same basic tools.
On the other side of the coin, as you covered in the last issue of Housing Technology, I think housing organisations could improve how they behave as customers and deliver better project briefs and requirements.
Would housing-specific technology standards help Affinity Sutton and the housing sector?
While I think that the idea of technology standards for the housing sector is very good, there is a long way to go first. While you have situations where even different parts of an organisation’s finance system can’t talk to each other, then the baseline needs to be moved up before you can even think about industry standards.
What are your key infrastructure and application areas?
Our new Blade and SAN infrastructure and WAN is pretty advanced, while our Citrix environment makes it very easy for our staff to work and access information anywhere. In terms of applications, our focus is on the big three – housing management, asset management and CRM. Finance, HR and other central functions are shared across the Affinity Sutton group, supported by a 40-strong IT department.
How has Affinity Sutton been affected by the current economic climate?
We are fortunately in a very sound financial state, to the extent that we issued a £250 million, 30-year fixed-rate bond last September. This was the largest bond ever issued by an RSL and is a key source of our liquidity. We have embarked on our new business strategy, so morale in the IT department is very high and we’re doing exciting work.