#UKHousing IT : Adapt or Die

I read this 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.

A Framework For Innovation

I’m going to attempt to figure out what a framework for innovation looks like for a medium sized organisation (less than 250 staff). This will largely be from my own perspective of working in social housing – so expect this to be slanted towards public and third sector work.

Why?

It’s generally accepted that we need to innovate in order to keep up with the changing environment our organisations operate in. However, innovation has become a bit of an ambiguous term of late. Most people are starting to recognise it’s needed, but how does that actually translate into day to day actions?

I work in IT and innovation often arrives on my doorstep in the form of “How can we do X?” or “Why can’t we do Y” and more often “I’ve seen Z  at <other place> and I think we need to do that too!”. At this point, the emphasis tends to be on action (fix my problem) rather than experimentation (are you sure there is a problem?). Once a project has been defined it’s incredibly difficult to halt or deviate should influencing factors change. The more resource that’s assigned to deliberate on it, the less likely it will be allowed to fail even if all signs indicate that it should. As humans we are pre-programmed with a need to make things work.

“Creativity Loves Constraints”
– Marrisa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

Having a framework to explore new ideas and fail fast(er) should accelerate decision making, inform the business strategy and enable course change sooner in response to demands inside/outside the organisation. A framework for innovation enables experimentation with concepts before there’s a crushing need to embrace them.

I’m going to attempt to figure out precisely what that looks like here. This will be a Working Out Loud exercise, so I’ll be forming thoughts and concepts as we go along. Feedback is always welcome, so if you think there’s a flaw in my logic or that I’m talking gibberish – pipe up! Let’s fix it together.

How?

I thought I’d tackle this by identifying the main activities or themes first and then iterate on each one, adding more detail as we go.

I envisage the journey of an idea would go something like this…

  1. Frame – focus people on a problem or challenge
  2. Collect – a method for staff to submit ideas
  3. Evaluate – some way of initially sorting out the plausible from the unworkable
  4. Test – flesh the idea out and test assumptions without expending too much time/money
  5. Pilot – small scale version of the idea to see if it’s sustainable & viable
  6. Deliver – idea moves from ‘the lab’ over to the business plan

Failure is the norm for innovation, it should be recognised as a standard part of the creative process. Rapid iteration is the order of the day rather than success. This should be communicated to everyone very early on to remove the stigma around failure. Not all ideas will make it through all the steps. In fact, many might only make it through the first two. The idea is to avoid zombie project syndrome and kill anything that has no immediate value as soon as possible. This will allow for a new idea to take its place.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
– Henry Ford

It’s important to document every stage of the journey as changing conditions inside/outside the organisation might allow an originally shelved idea to become viable. Documentation should be good enough so that months or years down the line it’s easy to understand who was involved, what was tested and what made it unworkable. Essentially it’s about building a museum of failed products which keeps newly submitted ideas from re-treading old ground and repeating the same mistakes.

In the next post I’ll be tackling the first step in the process : Frame.

Lots of this work is influenced by @PaulBromford, @ThomasHartland, @whatsthepont and @ShirleyAyres – you should go an follow them all immediately if this topic interests you.

Slack for communities

Slack is a messaging app that has become phenomenally popular over its relatively short two year life span. As of June 2015 there were over 1 million registered users.

Originally designed as team chat software for the employees of a video games company, the developers spotted the compelling nature of their messaging platform and decided to spin it off as a separate product. Some of that video game DNA is evident in the colourful user interface and playful nature of the Slackbot – the automated help system that gets people up and running when they first join. This isn’t your usual bland corporate software tool.

For many small businesses and startups it’s becoming the direct replacement for internal email. Why? It’s hard to explain until you actually start using Slack. The shallow learning curve and ability to run across multiple devices makes it easy to integrate into working life. Sharing via ‘channels’ with clearly defined topics means that it’s far better for disseminating information amongst the right people. And Slack plays nice with other services. It can integrate with Twitter, Trello, Google Docs and Dropbox (amongst many others). Essentially you can use Slack as the linchpin for all the other web services you use.

Slack isn’t just for small teams though. Slack’s pricing model means you can invite an unlimited number of people to a Slack team for ZERO cost. Because of this, some organisations have started creating Slack teams to support entire communities. Buffer for example have a community Slack team where Buffer staff and users can mingle and talk about the product, share tips on social media use or chat about anything else that people might have a shared interest on.

Slack is also being used as a tool for conferences (see article on The Verge). It can be daunting to attend a conference where you don’t know anyone, especially if you’re not the sort of person comfortable with small talk and networking. XOXO organisers used Slack to help establish relationships between delegates before they actually met in real life. And after the conference had taken place, Slack helped delegates stay in touch to keep the momentum of new ideas & projects going.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re swimming in ways to communicate with each other – why throw yet another channel of communication into the mix? I really love Twitter and in recent years it has become a hugely influential tool for learning and crowd sourcing information. BUT, many of the relationships formed on Twitter tend to be quite fluid. It’s great at creating lots of different connections, but it’s harder (although not impossible) to deepen those relationships within the confines of 140 characters. The very nature of Twitter is quite impermanent. Unless it’s occurred in the past few hours, it’s pretty much buried.

Slack on the other hand enables free form conversation amongst potentially hundreds of people. The simple but effective messaging format fosters properly fleshed out discussion and there’s a lengthy history of everything that has taken place for those joining the conversation mid-way. In terms of fully conveying ideas in real-time with a large number of people, it’s about as good as it gets outside of physically being in the same space.

Also, as Slack teams are not publicly viewable it perhaps discourages some of the counter productive grandstanding (or worse, trolling) that takes place on other public mediums. See the comments section of.. well, just about any website you can imagine for examples of this.

If this sounds interesting and you’d like to dabble with Slack, I’ve created a UKHousing Slack team for anyone working in or involved with housing. All are welcome! You can request an invite by filling out this form : https://ukhousing.typeform.com/to/JbTf9L

Coworking. Not just for trendy freelancers and startups.

Earlier this week I was reading an article about the rise of coworking spaces in recent years. In case you’ve never heard of it, coworking is the practice of individuals or small teams working from shared office space. Aside from enabling these groups to have a flexible base of operations without committing to fixed leases, these spaces have created flourishing communities and helped connect and inspire people from differing professions around common goals.

This had me pondering – couldn’t the benefits of coworking office space be applied to absolutely anyone, not just freelancers and startups?

For a while now the technology has been in place where people can work from literally anywhere (see the definition of digital nomad if you want to be green with envy). I’m at a point where I could do a large chunk of my job armed with just an iPad and an Internet connection. So why aren’t we encouraging more staff to spend office days in places other than their desk? Especially faced with mounting evidence that the traditional office environment is bad for productivity.

Yes, it’s good (essential even?) for staff to spend time with their colleagues to foster those working relationships that are so crucial to getting things done and making the job enjoyable. However, I think it’s equally important to work in different spaces to shake off the ‘default’ mindset of plodding through routine, doing what you’ve always done before.

So, speaking from experience of my own sector – what if we had shared working space for all the Housing Associations in Cardiff? How many serendipitous conversations and relationships would be forged simply by sharing the same working area whilst doing the daily email trawl?

Let’s throw the net wider. Why not open that shared office space to Housing Associations in Wales? What sort of ideas might get swapped over a cup of coffee in the kitchen?

Let’s go broader again – why not open that office space to Local Councils and Health Boards? What common struggles could we talk about over lunch? What sort of connected approaches might we start defining?

Whilst we’re at it, why don’t we host regular unconferences in this space to help flesh all these new ideas out to find wider support?

Obviously, there’s a whole raft of logistical challenges to solve. But I think it illustrates that working in this sort of environment could result in huge opportunities for collaboration and connecting the dots across multiple sectors. In a broad sense it’s all about removing barriers (physical, hierarchical, political, organisational) to prevent people toiling in isolation, duplicating or expending effort in the wrong areas.

In this way we might be able to get on with the business of tackling the wicked problems that matter most, together

#UKHousing As A Platform

A few weeks ago I wrote a bit about the need for Housing Associations to take destiny into their own hands and develop a digital platform for themselves. Something that wasn’t driven by profit, but was driven by purpose.

There are only a few commercial players offering housing systems and the closed, proprietary nature of their products ham-strings us from being truly responsive to our increasingly changing environment. Even where there is a strong appetite to innovate, because we don’t have direct control to modify our systems, we are often at the mercy of paid consultancy to get things done. And it’s really hard to experiment when you have to attach a price tag up front!

The more I thought about WordPress in the context of Housing Association software, the more I realised I was actually thinking about a framework or platform. So, what’s the big deal with ‘open’ platforms?

“If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation from companies large and small…”
– Tim O’Reilly

This approach is being used by the Government Digital Service to transform systems from the inside. Historically, government departments spent a great deal of time and money building bespoke closed systems which couldn’t talk to other parts of government. In many instances they were duplicating effort re-designing the same services over and over, but completely unaware as everyone worked in their own silos. Worst still, digital services were often designed with government processes in mind, not the people who use them. This often resulted in poorly designed user experience and outright incomprehensible content.

In this blog post in 2012, Mike Bracken set out his vision of GOV.UK – A Platform for Digital Government. This passage resonated with me in particular…

GOV.UK has been designed with transparency, participation and simplicity at its core. It will always be based on open standards, and is unapologetically open source. This architecture ensures its integration into the growing ecosystem of the Internet. Inevitably, innovation will follow, driven from within and without. GOV.UK is not Government on the Internet, but of the Internet.
– Mike Bracken

By working in small agile teams, the Government Digital Service have been able to build initially small but functional prototypes for services and then iterate quickly. Every iteration is an opportunity to ask “How can we make this better for users?”. Users are the essential component for everything they do. They are number 1 on the GDS design principles document. User needs – not government needs.

Let’s ponder on that for a moment. Are our systems designed for Housing Association needs or for User needs?

We are organisations that are all about doing social good, therefore we have a duty to make sure our systems are open and accessible for anyone who needs to work with us to improve the lives of our customers. For example, we could potentially form much stronger links with local health authorities and councils if they were able to interface with our systems seamlessly, and vice versa.

An open platform would allow us to develop services WITH our customers rather than FOR them. To design digital services which empower people rather than chuck arbitrary roadblocks in the way because system A doesn’t communicate well with system B.

An open platform would allow us to develop together rather than in isolation. It would stop us re-inventing the wheel over and over again. It would enable us to transparently share success and failure, thus rapidly improving the product for everyone.

I was about to launch into a lengthy diatribe of how this might work in practice, but it turns out a rather clever bloke by the name of Richard Sage (@BakedIdea) had done some sterling work around this very topic last year. You can read his excellent blog posts on the subject here, here and here.

The question of how we get to this brave new world is a difficult one. The Government did it by creating a department with a positive culture for change and a remit for putting users first, eliminating duplication and injecting transparency into everything they do. On the face of it, the task seems monumental and unlikely to work but their track record has been admirable so far.

I would dearly love to see something similar in our sector. We’ve all been toiling in isolation for a while now and many are still bumping up against the same old roadblocks of mobilising the workforce, creating digital services for customers, leveraging data for business intelligence etc. etc. Is it time for a different approach?

It would be great to see a grander strategic vision on how we can improve not just individual organisations, but how we could potentially improve the sector as a whole by pooling our resources and building something of our own. An open platform that serves our communities first and foremost, because if we’re not here for that.. what are we here for?

IT is dead. Long live IT.

I’ve worked in the IT sector for 14 years. The majority of that stint has been spent in public & third sector organisations. In all that time I can’t remember the pace of technological change being quite so rapid.

And that’s by no means bad thing! I love new technology and I’m a big fan of change but it’s something that most organisations in our sector struggle to keep pace with.

The IT department were once the purveyors of everything digital. We introduced the first PDA devices that you had to sync via USB to carry your email around. We gave people their first laptops that came in suitcase sized carry bags and weighed as much as a small toddler. We told people that social networks & instant messaging platforms were okay, but weren’t a serious communications replacement for trusty old email.

So what happened? Has IT become a lumbering dinosaur?

Technology has become mainstream and the barrier for using it is getting lower all the time. When I was five I got my first computer (Amstrad CPC464 FTW) and it came with a ring bound manual that was comparable in size to the Boeing 747 owners guide. I took me the best part of a day to figure out how to load games from the cassette deck. This year my daughters (2 & 3 years old respectively) had Android tablets for Christmas and within 10 minutes they were happily using them unaided.

People from non-traditional IT backgrounds are becoming skilled in areas like mobile and cloud because they use that technology in their day to day lives. The hardware (mobile, tablet, laptop, desktop) has reached a point where it’s increasingly less important than the actual services people are interacting with. And the expectation is that those services are available wherever there’s an Internet connection.

Of course, your trusty IT department play a HUGE part in ensuring you can access your work anywhere. But as more and more services migrate out to the cloud, there’s less to administer in house and less that can go wrong on the user end of the equation.

In the last ten years I have witnessed a huge bump in general computer literacy. I fully expect new generations of staff to be very comfortable with Google-ing their own problems and fixing their own stuff.

The cold hard truth is the average in-house IT team are rapidly losing relevance in their current guise.

The problem is we’ve been saddled with the role of gatekeepers of change for far too long. If any part of the organisation wanted to do things differently, it has to work with IT to map out the processes, scope the project, procure a system and implement it. Great right? We’re valuable!

Whilst it’s lovely to be needed – it also creates a bottleneck. It’s not unusual for an IT department to run with somewhere between 5 and 10 projects simultaneously on top of day to day activities. And they just keep stacking on top of each other as the year progresses. Constant time slicing between complex tasks slows everything down to a crawl. In turn this makes the organisation less responsive and less able to change course when required.

Course correction is more important than perfection.
– IBM CIO Jeff Smith

I think it’s time for IT to relinquish control. We need to start looking for technology leaders outside the four walls of our departments and take a far more collaborative approach. Let’s have the confidence to make information freely available and co-author solutions together rather than unwittingly imposing decisions and limiting options.

Working within rigid hierarchies just isn’t going to cut it going forward. IT spending is dropping and IT teams are typically under resourced. We simply cannot hold back the floodgates of change. It’s time to decentralise IT and tap into resources across the breadth of the organisation to surface real technical challenges that need addressing now.

By adapting the role of IT to one of innovation and learning delivery (rather than just purely service delivery) we immediately extend our shelf life AND provide a far better platform for change to our organisations.

Why Don’t We Build A ‘WordPress’ For Social Housing Systems?

A random twitter conversation with @PaulBromford prompted a discussion about how small the market is for housing systems in the social housing sector. There are a handful of key players which have comprehensive unified solutions that are designed to be ‘one size fits all’.

There are a few problems with this approach.

  • They’re potentially expensive & bloated for smaller organisations.
  • They tend to be closed systems with limited interoperability with anything else.
  • The development cycle tends to be long.
  • Often built on a foundation of old technology.
  • Documentation is generally hard to find or non-existent.

This had me thinking about alternatives.

What if we had a ‘WordPress’ for housing systems? WordPress is an open source blogging framework (you’re looking at it right now). Anyone can download WordPress and use it completely free of charge. You can even openly modify it to suit your individual needs.

In fact, WordPress is so flexible that it’s now being used not just for blogging but for shop fronts, forums, jobs boards, support desks.. the list goes on. WordPress has become so prevalent as a platform that being a WordPress developer is now a career path in its own right.

What if we applied this approach to a platform for the social housing sector? Imagine a framework that gave organisations the freedom to use as much or as little of a system for FREE.

There are 1700 registered Housing Associations in the UK.  Rather than toiling away in isolation trying to make our ‘off the peg’ housing systems work for us, why don’t we work together on creating something that can be as diverse and powerful as the organisations we work in?

Unlike the private sector, it’s hugely beneficial for us to work more closely together – and I don’t mean so that we can all be the same, but by remixing others ideas to suit our own organisational needs. By collaborating openly with each other on a housing system framework we could..

  • Accelerate learning and ideas.
  • Drive down development costs.
  • Tackle the biggest headaches together (self service, mobile working etc.)
  • Iterate (and innovate) faster.

This feels distinctly like a market that is ripe for a good dose of disruption. Food for thought!