Three years ago, Watford Community Housing started a significant digital transformation programme to bring our service offerings and infrastructure up to modern standards, and also to lay the foundations for future development and innovation. This required a fundamental re-evaluation of the way our IT function operated, changing its relationship with both the business and external partners, and it required buy-in to this new vision from key stakeholders and the group’s board.
Going back three years, we had both recently joined WCH and saw that there were a number of core deficiencies in our IT function. Both of us came from outside the housing sector and issues such as downtime, out-of-service products and non-integrated systems were far from acceptable. We started to become accustomed to the dreaded ‘system is down again’ emails, normally on Monday mornings! Confidence in the service from both customers and staff was being steadily and regularly eroded, and this inspired our radical approach to change.
To start this work, we carried out a service audit of our IT function across four technology pillars; infrastructure, resilience, platforms and peripherals. Unsurprisingly, we identified that two of the four (infrastructure and resilience) were out of tolerance, with the other two also needing some level of remediation. The main issues focused on areas such as dilapidated systems, non-integrated systems, regular downtime and a dysfunctional managed service relationship.
The digital transformation plan was formed and we felt it had to be bold and cover several years of improvement and change. We went to our group board with four major decisions that were needed to take the organisation forward; these were building a resilient IT capability, creating a modern IT function, focusing on strategic development partners, and becoming a digital-first provider.
Building a resilient IT capability
We decided to insource our IT capability to address and adapt to the changing business demands of the organisation. This involved reviewing the entire IT landscape across what was the standard business-as-usual (lights on) service. The infrastructure had to be brought up to a standard that would accommodate the group’s ambition for implementing technology solutions. It also needed to progress at a pace we could control, rather than at a pace dictated by a managed service provider.
Throughout the first year, the refresh of core IT infrastructure and internet capacity was tackled to allow resilience within the network but also to deploy an effective DR and backup solution because the existing set-up was leaving the organisation exposed. This focused on what we needed to do to future-proof the investment. Further deployment of end-user computing facilities enhanced the staff experience, extended mobile working and regained confidence with our stakeholders throughout the business.
Creating a modern IT function
In parallel with this, we recruited a completely new team to deliver a modern IT function. The department was split into three teams, comprising IT support, development and business intelligence reporting, which gave us a central hub for service delivery. We have focused on new and young talent, creating roles for apprentices and those seeking professional development. We have also looked for coverage in areas such as business intelligence, where new skills were required.
Our IT development team has shifted our focus away from buying in solutions towards developing our own solutions; in the past year, we have deployed several new internally-developed apps for our staff to support them, particularly in mobile working and estate inspections.
Strategic development partners
The challenging culture shift within the organisation was to change the ‘wrap-around, shiny toy’ approach used to bridge gaps in business processes which inevitably continued to fragment our services. With a lack of true integration between different vendors, we decided to engage in strategic development partnerships with our core software suppliers. By working closely with suppliers such as Orchard, we could have open discussions on the expectations that we needed their products to deliver and be transparent in what their products could deliver. We have also had a clear focus on removing applications which were ‘orphaned’ or non-integrated and instead pushing our core partners to expand their offers.
The strategic partnerships have helped us drive the ‘digital first’ experience for our customers; we won’t enforce ‘digital by default’ but instead provide platforms and solutions that are easy to use for our customers, thereby making digital channels more attractive.
The journey for ‘digital first’ started with the implementation of Orchard’s Digital Tenancy platform, which has delivered a dynamic portal for our customers to check their rent balances, request repairs, report ASB, and log compliments and complaints. This was further enhanced with the implementation of self-appointing repairs, enabling customers to book a time convenient to them for their repairs. Before lockdown, over 20 per cent of our tenants had signed up to the service and over 900 repairs had been raised via this route.
Before the start of the lockdown at the end of March, we had already arranged for all WCH staff to be prepared for remote working, initially on a rotation basis.
When the government’s lockdown announcement was finally made, we were able to respond very quickly, changing our call centre to use ‘softphones’ within three days and for non-laptop users to be allocated a device from our reserve training pool or use the remote VDI gateway on their own devices. Internet services already had expansion capabilities for future requirements, so we could accommodate the increased bandwidth demands from 200Mb to 1Gb within a week.
This couldn’t have been done without a clear IT strategy and having foundations that are robust enough to support the journey and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. While it has not always been plain sailing over the past three years, we can look back and cite a material improvement in system performance, the roll-out of a much-improved digital tenancy portal and a higher level of integration between our systems. We have also established a modern IT team, which is providing both applications and insights to the organisation that were not present as part of our managed contract.
The other big benefit has been financial. While the above technology change programme might sound expensive, we have managed to keep our overall costs roughly the same as before. The cost of our in-house IT function is about the same as the managed service costs and our in-house development team matches the rate-card development costs of our managed service provider. One area of significant savings has been the reduction in capital expenditure (capex) because we now have much greater control over our IT spending and have moved our focus away from ‘add-on’ solutions towards cyclical refreshes of infrastructure and kit.
While trying to refresh and rebuild a function can be daunting, we have no doubt that our position is much stronger now and our response to lockdown has demonstrated our readiness for new ways of working, even at a just few days’ notice!
Paul Richmond is the director of resources and Barry Wilson is the chief technology officer at Watford Community Housing.