Making the most of IT

This article looks at ways of improving the way you manage and use your IT system. Click on a heading on the left to go straight to that section. You'll see that we don't consider here whether to renew the system entirely: we cover this in our book 'Buying IT', available from the Chartered Institute of Housing.

Monitoring what you do

Making the most of your IT system is built on the foundations of monitoring and review.

This will begin with a post-implementation review when a new system is installed. Implementation and training aren't a one-off exercise. Some things - problems and benefits - will only become evident over time. You should monitor, and then look back critically at, the whole implementation process; then, in subsequent years, at annual targets, achievements and adaptations. Each review should renew your relationship with your supplier - and thus will form the foundation for how you manage the system in the future as well as providing fuel for the next round of information, systems and it strategies you will be formulating.

Good practice in managing IT

Good practice in this area does not involve prescribing things like the extent to which you look after your own system versus the extent you rely on your supplier. This should depend on your own skills, strengths and the basis of the relationship.

Good practice does involve stepping back from the maelstrom of installation and day-to-day running to establish a sound year-on-year policy.

And good practice should, too, feed back into making the most out of your investment. An enormous amount of money and human effort has gone into acquiring this system. You need to maximise your benefits from it. Compare the cost with that of renovating a building, or constructing it anew. How often, for want of a small amount of expenditure of time and money on maintenance, does a substantial capital investment deteriorate too quickly? Make sure you invest enough in the system on an annual basis to repay that original cost. Pull your supplier along with you, for your system is an asset to them too, and a constructive partnership will benefit both of you. Do your best to make sure that you will not have to go through the whole traumatic process of acquiring a new system for a long, long time.

The procurement and implementation of a new system is not, then, something to be seen as a once-and-for-all exercise. It represents a stage and only a stage in a process of managing your resources. The continued management of your system requires:

  • organising the management phase well
  • dealing with the dealer - developing a pro-active relationship to your supplier and their product.
  • using your good organisation and your developing relationship to grow into your system and to grow with your system

Organising the management phase

You need a year-on-year strategy for your IT and information needs. At different levels in your organisation - which might be board, senior management and operational management, say - responsibility for the system needs to be clear. The different levels might involve:

  • overall monitoring and supervision at the top level, including budgetary provision for new releases and add-ons
  • supervision of internal support and problem-solving at the middle-level, and the establishment and maintenance of a good relationship with the supplier
  • provision of good internal support and help; at this and the middle level, there should be a key user for each module - or district, say, or however your organisation is divided up - to be the local expert, to pass problems up the line and solutions down
  • good internal communications so that the left hand knows, more often than not anyway, what the right hand is doing - for all but the smallest this may well involve an internal user group: in our survey 79% of local authorities and 59% of housing associations said they had one

Dealing with the dealer: your supplier

The relationship with your supplier should be a positive one. You will need to be listening to each other, and regularly discussing how things are going, based on common agreed information. Surely you will?

One method more and more organisations are using to prevent things getting too cosy is to take a model from internal departments in local government and set up a service level agreement with your supplier. This specifies - to a further level of detail than is usually included in the main contract - the level of service to be provided as a minimum for the annual fee payable, covering such things as:

  • upgrades
  • visits by consultants
  • training
  • development effort
  • other things important to you or the supplier

This can help you budget, rather than having to go back to committee and justify each need to spend. The actual clauses and sub-clauses are in a sense less important than the stimulus such an agreement provides for discussion, for thinking about what you are doing, for acting strategically. Your strategy needs to embrace:

  • a systematic approach to problems
  • liaising - playing politics - in the right way with your supplier.

Case study: East Suffolk MIND: 'Small is different'

A systematic approach

The most minimal approach to managing an IT system will have to contend with bugs in the coding and programming - or undocumented features, as computer folk like to call them. In a small way they are a good test of how well your day-to-day management is organised:

  • Does a particular problem get referred regularly to your internal support? Or to the supplier?
  • Do you have a way of monitoring referrals independent of the supplier?
  • Do you have a single point of contact with your supplier so that one person will become aware and knowledgeable of the issues?

A systematic approach to problems means that you will know when a day-to-day problem becomes an issue, and you will have the right mechanisms in place to take action quickly on the issue.

Case study: Broomleigh HA: Getting feedback

A shoulder to lean on, or do we mean 'cry'?

If problems do arise, everything depends on your relationship with your supplier. You need to press them from the word go to offer you something more than the minimum usually implied by 'support' - We'll answer your calls quickly if you hassle us, otherwise the next time you'll see us will be when we have a new release to sell you.

You need someone to lean on, who will trust you to let them know when things are really going badly but not to call in the management every time a piece of code needs a little rewriting. Press your supplier so that, like you, they have a known consistent point of contact for your organisation. You should at minimum be able to trust them for

  • reliable hardware and software
  • good telephone support to an agreed level
  • regular visits to talk about their strategy and yours

Watch the monitor

Underlying this approach is the importance of monitoring progress and problems - what is going right and what is going wrong. You need evidence:
  • to nip problems in the bud
  • to evaluate how things are going
  • to support or refute criticisms.

Hard evidence will derive from the monitoring of support calls and how quickly and efficiently they are dealt with. Watch out, though, for suppliers' measures of efficiency which rely on response times, not on whether the problem is really solved.

Feedback from internal user groups can be backed up by periodic questionnaires and surveys to find out how satisfied users are, and to measure performance as users see it.

Click here to see a sample questionnaire for users

Growing into your system

So far we've mostly been concerned simply with making what you bought work. But there are many nooks and crannies to a complicated system, many wonderful things that some of your staff loved when they were at a demonstration all those years ago but which never actually get used. How do you make sure you get the most out of what you already have?

One vital priority is continuing training. Implementation is always more rushed than you expect so it will be well worth considering a second phase of training, once the system has bedded in. Beyond that there needs to be a continually-reviewed programme of training to skill up new staff, to coincide with new releases from the supplier and developing skills within your own organisation (for instance more sophisticated report-writing and management information facilities as you become more conversant with your system), and to keep renewing basic knowledge and skills and root out bad habits and unnecessary routine errors.

Most suppliers have a user group, sometimes with sub-groups interested in particular topics. These help to give users power in relation to a supplier - the power of numbers - and keep you in touch with how a product is or is not developing. But they can also be useful in hearing and understanding how others do things. The different ways that superficially similar organisations use the same product can be a wonder to behold. Feed off others' experience. Then turn around and tell the folks back home.

Depending on your organisation's size and your particular mix of personnel, you should regard your own skills as an asset to be nurtured and passed on. You will certainly want to create your own reports and develop management and executive information. Bigger organisations or those with technically proficient staff will find that open systems present lots of opportunity for development.

Avoid, though, depending on the programming skill of a single individual within your organisation; their skill is marketable elsewhere, and then where will you be? You need, too, to keep striking the balance between customising to your needs, and remaining upgradeable.

Case study: Ridgehill HA: 'Only limited by your imagination'

Growing with your system

Computer technology changes fast. It used to be that after a certain period of change, you just had to throw everything out and start again. Not any more. People with their own personal computers know that: these days you take your old machine in and they upgrade the innards while you wait.

Big systems are like that too now. Not upgradeable while you wait, no. Miracles take a little longer. But they can adapt and grow with change of all kinds:

  • new technology
  • changing policies and practices
  • changing personnel and organisation
  • the need for better management information

new technology

Processing is getting faster and faster. Not just inside the boxes either. Better network software and faster communication through developments like ISDN connections sometimes mean that the hardware has to change to accommodate development. But your system software should be able to cope.

Other developments may simply involve 'add-ons' to an existing system. More user-friendly screens, for instance, with a Windows-like appearance, have appeared in front of many older systems (though you need to ask questions about performance). And the trend to using browsers and intranets to communicate within organisations, especially larger ones with multiple systems, can leave the underlying housing system intact beneath.

changing policies and practices

A strong current trend is for organisations to move towards decentralisation of some services coupled with more centralised call-centres, and perhaps a 24-hour service. The combination of telephony and database technology should complement a modern system rather than cause it problems. Changing personnel and organisation

We issued a warning early on about the danger of a new broom trying to sweep an organisation into unnecessary change. Again, contemporary large systems can mostly cope with substantial changes, like changes of legal status, to a housing company for instance. Mergers may also not cause problems at least in the short-run.

the need for better management information

Poor management information that is not renewed often enough and is too inflexible remains a bugbear for many organisations. Some suppliers are working these days on integrating such provision into their systems. In other cases, though, it is entirely possible to 'bolt on' to an existing system a management information system renewing its own data regularly, and enabling complex 'drill-down' and cross-referencing facilities.

Case study: Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council: Plus ca change

positive management: partnership and mutuality

A positive approach to managing your system can extend beyond the mechanics of keeping it running, and running well.

Increasingly larger associations and authorities are looking beyond the deal-making, and treating their relationships with their suppliers as partnerships.

That can get too cosy. Make sure the initial tendering process was clear and above board; ensure good monitoring is continuously in place; check who is paying for lunch.

But partnership can have many positive benefits for an organisation. Encourage ideas from within your organisation or department then sell them with the supplier to other authorities / associations. Make them come to you till they 'go native'. Nip arguments and misunderstandings in the bud. Protect your investment by working together.

Case study: N British HA: 'Associations in partnership'

Other organisations are looking at different forms of positive management. Larger organisations can help smaller ones. Or a number of organisations can work together. Three Midlands-based smaller associations, for instance, have set up a separate company to run hardware and software jointly. Two other associations have since joined the consortium, selecting the same software. The company has its own staff, provides support and runs user groups for the participating organisations, and manages the relationship with the supplier.

Of course, for some such approaches may be too time-consuming or costly. But they represent the most creative end of a spectrum of approaches to positively managing your system. Do not be ruled by your supplier, or manage passively, or devote too few resources to keeping your system up to scratch, or pretty soon you will be back at square one again, thinking about a whole new system - and remember how disruptive that was!