#UKHousing IT : Adapt or Die

I read this post by Paul Taylor about “IT departments facing an adapt or die moment” and it got some of my synapses firing.

The race to provide proper digital services is on. In fact it started such a long time ago that I’m loathed to use the term digital, because these days it’s a given that you should be able to manage your account via the Internet in some form or another. And yet many of us are still striving to provide a cohesive solution which works as seamlessly as when you order take away on your smartphone.

Paul goes on to outline four areas to keep IT relevant and fit for the challenges ahead.

Embrace The Network
Define The Problem
Be Small and Agile
Fail Fast

These are all very laudable aims (many of which are close to my own heart). They hint at future where we admit we don’t have all the answers to all the problems and start working more openly to try and solve them.

But the scale of the challenge becomes clear when I start thinking about what IT traditionally focuses on. Our bread and butter is often the processes that happen inside the organisation — the back office. Old skool mindset says consolidate as many systems into one as possible for efficiency and lean the sh*t out of it until it all runs like well oiled clockwork. This worked beautifully when work was predictable and change was fairly glacial.

What Paul is talking about is a fundamental shift to focusing on where services actually interact with our residents (where the rubber really meets the road). User needs first, as those Government Digital Service bods would say.

When you start thinking about what Housing Associations actually do, and what our outcomes should be, designing services with residents first and foremost in mind (not the Association with its structures and silos) actually makes a whole lot of sense. Plus if it’s good enough for the Government, why not us?!

The problem is, us IT types are not skilled up for this new dawn. We’d have to start focusing less on big internal software solutions and waterfall project management, Instead embracing agile methodologies for rapid delivery. We’d have to start training or recruiting people to do user research, user experience, service design and development. Or in short — more thinking about people, less thinking about the process.

Couldn’t we contract those skills in or outsource it? Yes — possibly as an interim solution to get up and running and prove the concept. But the power of agile service design lies within the rapid delivery of small meaningful blocks of work. Ideally, the people doing this work should be embedded in the organisation, constantly talking to staff and residents to find the next pain point in the service and attacking/iterating until it goes away.

Couldn’t we just buy a ready made solution? Yes — this has been the modus operandi to date. The problem is these solutions are often designed with a very broad scope, have expensive licensing attached or hold data hostage through lack of open standards or API. In order to be agile and responsive to changing conditions outside our organisations (and things are changing A LOT lately) we need to be masters of our own destiny and be able to develop the solution without boundaries, limitations or caveats. How often are services shaped by the solution rather than vice versa?

This is a giant leap from working with a supplier to procure & implement a solution to a problem, to not entirely knowing what the problem is at the outset and building the solution rapidly ourselves as we go.

It was deeply interesting following the National Housing Federation IT Conference hashtag today. I could see these two very different worlds colliding in the same room. I may yet be proved wrong, but I honestly believe the future of IT is one where we’re leading the charge for innovation by designing services ourselves — not entrusting the vision to others.

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