Housing providers’ IT projects now support a rapidly changing, increasingly mobile workforce that provide services to increasingly tech-savvy and demanding tenants. In a world where customers are used to placing orders via smartphone for next-day delivery, the bar is now set high for repairs and maintenance service levels and innovation including IoT; and residents can now interact routinely with housing providers via the web and their apps. In the digital era, housing providers are now creating joined-up digital strategies and housing IT projects must support that strategy.
As context, more than five years ago, the government called for services to be ‘digital by default’ (Housing Technology’s ‘Digital By Default 2016’ report provides a lot of great insight into the benefit of promoting digital skills, access to online services for all and opportunity for easier interaction with housing providers). The demand is now coming through thick and fast and technology is rapidly maturing. This demand extends beyond just operating and maintaining properties to providing other optional premium solutions as differentiators, such as internet access, security, social, and health/welfare-related services.
IT projects relating to infrastructure have changed substantially. Data centres and business-continuity sites are no longer (or, at least, shouldn’t be!) based on-premise or in expensive real estate. Solutions now rely on more cost-effective cloud solutions provided by trusted providers and it isn’t as simple as saying services are ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the network any more. End-user computing is no longer about deciding the best type of laptop, tablet or mobile for housing providers’ staff; the new digital landscape demands a connected ecosystem of properties, tenants, services and devices. Housing providers’ IT projects will often involve complex options that are configurable for the provider and long-established processes can often be re-mapped for efficiency; this is a substantial opportunity for IT to step up and deliver ‘business’ projects.
You mention the complexities of IT projects – what new elements now need to be included in IT projects to ensure they don’t fail?
As the new fuel critical to all digital solutions, data now needs to be understood as an end-to-end resource. Whether it’s CRM data for the customer contact centre to support tenants, HCA regulatory or internal reporting, document management, data flows or the business applications in daily use, data needs to be valued and managed as an asset.
A wider data governance programme can be very beneficial to reveal if, for example, housing stock is being managed efficiently, measure the total cost-per-build, ensure cost-effective maintenance and repairs, smart scheduling of appointments, secure API-based data access for authorised contractors, and mobile apps and portals for tenants.
It is no longer viable to designate projects simply as ‘IT’, ‘digital’ or ‘data’ or to roll out individual applications. Strategic programmes focused on delivering outcomes and new capabilities are replacing former ‘tactical IT’ projects, and consequently responsibility no longer resides with just one department.
What is and what isn’t a project?
‘Business as usual’ (BAU) incremental improvements can take place as discrete team projects rather than as formal ‘projects’ where possible, subject to scaled-down project methods, thresholds that the housing provider finds acceptable and the capability of the team. Otherwise, there is a risk of project bureaucracy which can stifle BAU improvements and make each change unnecessarily expensive. This doesn’t mean a free-for-all; a clear strategy that is cascaded down to all levels of the organisation will help to ensure that teams keep each other honest about doing the right thing. Leaders must maintain good communications and ensure plans do not trip up another team or duplicate their efforts. In short, it should be possible to define smaller, less bureaucratic projects, rather than larger, more formal ones, and agree consistent definitions.
For more futuristic projects, a small, dedicated in-house innovation team can help housing providers to envisage their long-term future state, incorporating technology and new approaches with bold thinking, and testing this thinking through ‘minimum viable products’ (MVP) as the precursor for larger, more formal future project investments.
Innovation teams are not yet common in the housing sector but I expect them to become widespread within the next five years. To be effective, innovation teams will need the ability to work with agility and with ring-fenced resources and funding. The innovation team will also require some autonomy across the organisation, with clear terms of engagement, much in the way that a start-up business operates.
What changes are needed to IT leadership in the digital era?
The new digital era of housing projects has driven a transition from traditional IT directors managing IT services and infrastructure to a new ‘digital CIO’ role that understands and delivers the value of data, IT and digital experience across the entire organisation. Digital CIOs work with their executive leadership team to transform organisations by introducing innovation and changing their business models. There is a lot to be learned from insurance, engineering and construction firms, particularly in how to interact differently with customers and the use of data, IoT and smart sensors.
The new digital CIO as IT leader will spend time to understand how the new highly-mobile housing workforce operates. For example, how are property surveys and safety inspections carried out on the move – this is vital information as technology is now a great enabler, therefore time spent in the field with these teams will be invaluable to provide thought leadership and to understand where projects and technology will deliver the most value.
Platforms now exist to simplify and avoid the confusion of maintaining different devices and applications’ use in the field. A good example is UK-based firm TAAP that provides housing providers with a single seamless platform for a range of mobile activities such as secure online payments, tenancy agreements and other document signing, property surveys (with photo capture, GPS location and timestamping) and tracking of high-risk safety issues. This is great news at a time when the best-known asset and property management solutions commonly in use are lacking competition and are not evolving fast enough to work well with modern devices.
Can you give any examples of particularly bad IT projects?
I prefer to remain positive as we are in a new digital era with great potential for success! Having said that, as a crucial step to ensuring project success in the past, I have had to ‘pause’ some high-cost capital projects involving organisation-wide IT upgrades that would have failed to deliver value in the new digital ecosystem. I have a few examples.
Telephony ‘one-size-fits-all’ upgrade projects fail when they don’t match the requirements of a mobile workforce because many staff don’t need a ‘desk phone’. The very specific defined needs for a CRM-based, data-integrated customer contact centre also are very different from the needs of mainstream ‘corporate’ telephony users. A better starting point would be to first assess the complex customer contact centre requirements that put the customer at the centre of the experience, including taking payments and being able to quickly reference details about the property, rent payments and the tenant’s personal details.
The acquisition of properties (if we can describe these as projects) and the set-up/acquisition of new businesses can sometimes be rushed, and poor due diligence or consideration around technology needs or strategic fit often leads to a rushed retrofit of IT needs, missed opportunities and needless catching-up after the fact.
ERP implementations are rarely as smooth as hoped and at times go badly wrong. This is especially worrying given their high costs, typically being millions of pounds. ERP failures usually result from a failure of the housing provider’s leadership to connect the programme and teams with common goals and a wider strategy, a lack of readiness to change, a limited knowledge of current processes, data and apps, and poor project management. ERP project outcomes are often not clearly defined and sometimes the wrong IT supplier is chosen – an integrated suite of ‘best of breed’ solutions may be a better option than a single ERP package that might be unsuited to meeting the needs of all functional areas. An army of consultants is rarely likely to fix major ERP challenges; this is a complex and critical area and ERP preparation starts far ahead of the definition of requirements to select a vendor.
What can you do before IT projects start to mitigate risks and avoid mistakes?
An effective project management office (or an enterprise view of projects) and clearly-defined project management methods are crucial. Housing providers must be clear about what is being spent, to deliver what and for what purpose and how it ties in with the delivery of the wider strategy. A balance is needed to ensure that the PMO is not too controlling, yet not too distant from projects. A sense of community across all the project managers and a common purpose for the projects they are managing will really help. The PMO is, just like IT, a part of the business and not separate from it. Clarify who the (one) executive sponsor is at the start, to be the champion for success. A small, cross-functional steering team (i.e. up to five major stakeholders) may also help to guide the project from the outset to the end delivery of its defined outcomes.
How do you get projects back on course?
Don’t wait, ask for help – an independent outsider or a colleague removed from the detail can help to identify the root cause of a failing project. The warning signs are usually seen early – low confidence, lack of enthusiasm or mis-placed optimism despite missed deadlines and budget over-spend. An experienced digital CIO as a non-executive advisor can provide independent assessment on an ongoing basis or help to commission a project review. Provide a clear brief for any project review, ensure project goals are clear (they may not be written down in the case of a failing project!) and ensure the reviewer has a mandate to look at all aspects of the project.
Be completely open and expect that a project assurance review is likely to identify other connected issues and will cover all stakeholder groups. Pause, change and restart, or stop if necessary; it may be the least worst option!
How often should projects be reviewed?
A project manager’s reputation should live or die based on the success of their projects. The PM role is responsible for delivering the project, with authority and responsibility from the project board, and hence must ensure that relevant skills of suitable quality and experience are engaged as needed. A week is a long time in a complex project, so this is an active ongoing process to be informed by work on project tasks and consolidated reasonably often, for example on a weekly basis.
It is important to provide the executive team with regular project updates, although probably no more frequently than monthly. The executive sponsor will need to be aware of all significant updates within a week, not longer. External stakeholders, such as service providers, tenant user groups or other relevant third parties should not be forgotten either; it is best to keep them involved throughout and not only when you need them or when they are identified at the start!
It is fundamental to set clear thresholds for reporting to the executive team as well as the project board, based on the days or weeks delayed, milestones missed or percentage over budget, irrespective of any other scheduled updates.
‘Lessons learned’ sessions at the end of projects can be incredibly valuable to help build trust and confidence for future projects; there needs to be a sense of community for the open sharing of experiences rather than treating it as a witch hunt.
It has been said that a good plan can help with risk analysis, but it will never guarantee the smooth running of the project. To paraphrase the famous military aphorism, ‘amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics’.
Ian Golding is an Interim CIO, recently at Southern Housing Group. In 2017, Ian was the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s first CIO, as Interim, and prior to 2016 Ian was Senior Partner and Group CIO at The ERM Group.