#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.

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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

#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!

Configuring iPhone 6 for Enterprise

I’m sure I’m not alone in grappling with the thorny issue of rolling iPhone 6’s out to business users. The problem lies within Apple’s Activation lock which is designed to make stolen iPhones unusable.

Basically, once an iPhone (5 or newer) or iPad (4 or newer) has been signed into with an iCloud login and ‘Find My Phone’ has been enabled, the phone is linked with that iCloud account. Even when wiping the phone via recovery mode, the phone will first check back with Apple to see if it’s listed against a user before allowing you to set it up. If it is listed, it’ll prompt for the associated iCloud account login to unlock and activate it.

So, if a phone is returned to IT without first being wiped by the previous owner, you’re pretty much left with a very expensive paper weight.

There’s a couple of ways around this, and whether they are viable or not will depend on the size of your business and how big your fleet of Apple devices are.

First you can lock personalisation of the phone down and provide a company wide user profile using Apple Configurator. Obviously, iPhones are seen as ‘personal’ devices and people tend to want to use their own Apple account so that they can install their apps, backup their photos etc. so this could be a hard sell unless you’re talking about communal devices like iPads.

Second option is to have them pre-deployed by Apple. Drawback is you have to purchase your units direct from Apple and not a reseller. In our case almost all of our kit is purchased through our mobile provider as part of a contract.

In the end I opted to go for a bit of a half-way house with Apple Configurator and put the phones into supervision mode but with a profile that’s largely unrestricted. This allows staff to use their own iCloud login and even enable ‘Find My Phone’.

A supervised phone can be put into recovery mode (hold down the home button when powering on) and connected to Apple Configurator to wipe and restore the device, even if it has a iCloud account associated with it.

One important note – you have to disable the ability for users to wipe their own phones. This will remove the supervision mode from the device and leave you vulnerable to having the device locked out.

Are you deploying Apple kit in your organisation? It’s always good to hear about other people’s experiences – leave a comment or tweet me!

Windows 10 – Better but not yet great

I’ve been playing with the Windows 10 technical preview on and off during the week and whilst not particularly groundbreaking (some would even say it’s disappointingly safe) it does quash some of my annoyances with Windows 8.1.

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They’ve tried to reconcile the jump between using it with a mouse and using it with a touch interface by putting windows controls on the Metro (or whatever we’re calling it now) apps. All the charms have been binned (yay!). The much hated full screen Start Menu is gone and is now bolted onto the side of the old-skool Start Menu.

New stuff includes virtual desktops (ace!), resizable start menu, and better snapping for windows to help you utilise those massive monitors more effectively. Additionally all Windows 10 apps will work across multiple platforms (laptop, tablets, phone etc.) which ties into Microsoft’s new vision of doing everything, everywhere. This also might help attract developers to the Windows app ecosystem which has been pretty low quality to date.

So, all in all – nothing that’s going to set the world alight, but Microsoft is in a bit of a tough spot where it has to innovate to keep up with it’s competitors whilst not alienating the huge amount of Enterprise customers it has. Speaking as a sysadmin, it’s a step in the right direction and will at least provide some much needed stability in the transition from Windows 7 (or Windows XP if you’re a council/bank).