The UK is struggling with housing at present. In London and some parts of the Home Counties a price rise bubble is inflating out of control. Major house building corporations lobby the political parties daily to slash planning laws and allow large scale developments to take place. The coalition government doesn't know whether it wants to build new garden cities or allow new homes that don't meet modern environmental standards. Around the country some towns and cities remain saddled with excessive levels of unoccupied and valueless properties, and areas such as Cornwall rely on Housing Associations to house local residents as the existing stock of homes have been turned into second homes for people from outside of the area. And it is the housing association sector that is transforming itself to meet the needs of the UK in 2015 and beyond.

Kevin Connell is in his second home as a housing association IT Director, he joined Southern Housing in June of 2014 after five years at Circle Housing.

Southern Housing Group is one of southern England's largest housing associations, owning and managing almost 28,000 homes for 63,000 customers in London and the South East. It has a turnover of over £180 million and assets of around £4 billion and 840 staff.

"It's an organisation that's very clear about the difference it wants people to make to their lives," Connell says with enthusiasm when we meet at his Clerkenwell, London headquarters.

"We provide a range of housing services, and on the Isle of Wight we provide support services to the elderly and vulnerable," he explains.

Connell decided to stay in the housing association sector because Southern sees the need to change its operating model and he wanted to be involved.

"They recognise the need to change and to continue to change, so it is very clear on what its core services are – housing, care and support – but it recognises there are different services that will have to be offered, too.

"One of the main challenges comes from being a business with social objectives, given that the days of large government funding for housing development have gone, with the advent of Universal Credit and the other reforms to welfare. So we have to change and quickly, and this organisation gets that," Connell reveals of the disruption to the typical revenue model housing associations relied on before the coalition came to power.

He uses the term 'customers' a lot rather than residents during our discussion, and he's clear throughout the interview that the policies of Iain Duncan Smith are just one disruptive force in the sector. As with every other vertical market, technology from the SMAC stack is impacting social housing.

"Customer engagement through social channels means we need a strong level of customer data and we have begun working with external agencies to do customer analytics in the cloud," he says.

Commercial hemisphere

"Southern understands that it has to be more commercial and a business with a social impact. That phrase would not have been in this sector six years ago. The global financial crash and subsequent government cuts mean that Southern has had to change. So what you are seeing is a shift in housing associations away from focusing on the asset to a focus on the customer," he says of the strategic move away from asset management tools to social and data analytics tools.

"The government's digital by default agenda means we are changing the way we work with our service providers. This means we need more innovative ways of doing things. The opportunity for large housing associations is to provide outsourced services to other housing associations, which in turn will change the level of investment needed to set up a housing association," Connell says of the expected increase in entrants to the housing association market.

Reshaping his Horsham-based team means a change to IT, and Connell is reshaping his team and supplier base to enable Southern to become customer-centric, commercial and able to react to change more easily.
"There's an opportunity to deliver enhanced capabilities from our customer service centre, both digital and face-to-face services. We have a broad customer base, from those preferring to make telephone calls to those demanding digital services. As customers increasingly become digital so must we. But in delivering digital services, you must automate the back end processes," he says of the need to not only offer apps, but to ensure a joined up end-to-end service.

"We are going to look hard at the end-to-end business processes as they really must change to offer value to the customer," he adds.

Connell has a heritage of using mobility to drive efficiencies at housing associations, something he did at Circle Housing during his five-year tenure.

"Mobility offers lots of opportunities, typically a surveyor comes to the office to get a list of jobs, does the jobs and then has to go back to the office to input them and then go home. Online access to the housing asset management system means we can improve someone's day and cut out the cost of fuel," he says of the work, life, cost and ecological benefits mobility allows a CIO to enable.

"We have a large number of customer service teams, and we have a reasonable geographic spread, so they are spending a lot of time travelling."

At Circle, Connell worked with Dell to deliver an agile working strategy using Microsoft as the platform. He has similar ambitions for Southern. "Our technology will very much be a Microsoft stack, but there are lessons we can learn from my previous experience to aim for speedier deployment."

To ensure that speedier deployment engages the entire organisation, Connell has a PMO that draws skills from across the organisation, including three business analysts and a project manager, who have been put at the heart of his IT team.

"I want to take their skills and knowledge, so that we can find where IT can lead change. They will give us a much greater insight into mobility, customer service and surveying for, example," he says. "We've also got to bring our infrastructure up to date to support the business, so a new Wide Area Network (WAN) is being introduced. New storage is also coming.

"I also want to cut down the number of applications and to drive more simplicity, so I have an objective to reduce the complexity and the cost, and to look at going cloud first where we can. We have SharePoint on the premises at present. I want to put that in the cloud. We don't need to be hosting these services. We want to allow our people to do more and add value to the organisation.

"The challenge for this sector is ensuring that the IT teams are aligned to the plans of management, so IT will need to make sure it is aligned to the projects and business goals. My role as IT Director is to help them understand the context of the changes, as they will struggle if they do not understand the end value.

"You need to be clear on what the strategy is, be open to challenges, and ultimately help people to understand what the business is and how to achieve it. I wanted an opportunity to use my wider leadership skills across the organisation, which was another reason for joining Southern," Connell says.

As the housing association sector moves away from a focus on assets and towards customers, so too will the sector's IT leaders change focus.

"It is a market that is not well served by the suppliers. The standards for development, testing, release and change management are not what you'd typically look for," he says candidly. "So you end up doing a lot of integration that you would not normally do," he says.

As stated above, Connell formed a strong alliance with Dell and Microsoft in his tenure at Circle. "At Circle, we helped open their eyes to the sector. The value of the assets that Circle managed was in the region of £4 billion," he says of how major corporate technology suppliers had not realised the market potential available to them.

"Microsoft now has an account manager for the housing sector. Its view of our sector has changed. So for Microsoft and for CRM providers there is a great opportunity to bring in technology and expertise in how to help reshape the customer service model."

As part of the customer service model, Connell plans to adopt a cloud-first technology strategy as he believes it's something CIOs should be fundamentally doing.

Connell joined Southern Housing in June 2014, leaving Circle after over five years. He was looking for a role with a little less travel, but one with a social impact and change involved, which resulted in him staying in housing, and he's clearly happy with his new home.

"This is a very positive organisation to work in and it is very positive about change, which is important as I love delivering change. I realise I have to keep the lights on, but that is not what this role is about. I feel I have an affinity with the leadership culture here."

Before joining Circle Housing, Connell had been head of information for London headquartered oil giants BP. Prior to that he was in the legal sector with well-known law firm Pinsent Mason, his second legal firm having begun his senior leadership career at Hogan Lovells.

"At BP, we did a lot in the diversity and inclusion space and that really interested me and it was great experience outside of the technology role. I learnt a lot at BP and worked with some great people, but I want a role that makes a difference to people's lives. I don't want to be in an organisation that has an end product that I don't see or deliver any value to," he says.

Away from hustle and bustle of the busy Clerkenwell office, Connell lives and walks on the South Downs in Sussex.