Neil Beckingham is making IT one of the most popular functions in the business. His implementation of a new cloud telephony service is saving £200k annually, with efficiencies yet to be realised expected to deliver a further £700k – a healthy 0.5% of revenue. And a big data initiative has classified customers into 12 different types, with each having differing predominant circumstances, behaviours and expectations, facilitating customer interaction, with better outcomes through focused questions, faster understanding and appropriate proposals.
Name and job title
Neil Beckingham, group ICT director, Symphony Housing Group.
How are you influencing the products, experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
I am part of a senior leadership team envisioning the future with its opportunities and challenges, blended with evolving customer needs and expectations and developments in technology. In the future our customers will require a greater degree of flexibility in product, which means the ability to move up and down the accommodation size ladder as their families grow and develop – that is, if they wish to or have to avoid paying the 'bedroom tax'. So to ensure the best chance that our stock matches that need in the longer term, we are building big data techniques to understand and predict future requirement as well as have a good picture of what can be offered in the short term.
Equally and contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of our customers are employed. As a result many of them face restrictions in their ability to contact us for customer service, so we are continually improving our digital offer. Our contact centre telephony system now merges voice, multiple social media, email and text to offer a relevant experience to each customer while also maximising the efficiency of agents.
For prospective customers we have developed the ability to search across the group for the right home in the right area while checking affordability online. We are also working on several angles to benefit from IoT. These include management and control of components in a home and common areas, as well as methods for helping vulnerable customers with dementia or disabilities, for example.
How as CIO have you driven cultural and behaviour change in your organisation, and to what extent?
Social housing organisations have typically not been known for their commercialism. The emphasis has tended to be on care rather than profit, or surplus as they tend to call it. I have strongly encouraged and demonstrated a commercial approach in every area that I have been involved with as I am convinced that profit is the enabler of social purpose rather than the demon that prevents it.
I evangelise this at every opportunity and actively demonstrate it at every engagement with the business, staff, customers and suppliers. This approach is taking hold across the organisation, in good part helped by necessity in the face of financial cuts in the chancellor's last Budget and autumn statement. Within the ICT function I have driven a culture change to become business partners operating at high professional standards to agreed methodologies with an emphasis on resource planning and delivering business value.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the past 12 months and their impact on your organisation's performance
As a federated group, the member businesses of Symphony have each operated in their own way, with each having different processes and procedures to achieve the same things. In fact, there have been multiple versions of processes and procedures within a single function of a single organisation and rarely have any been documented let alone optimised. An important outcome has been the unification, optimisation and documentation of many of the processes across group members, concentrating on those that had high risk or high potential gain.
In terms of improving flexibility, customer service performance, efficiency and financial savings, a new cloud telephony service has been implemented. Savings on hardware, calls and lines alone is delivering some £200k annually, with efficiencies yet to be realised expected to deliver a further £700k, thus 0.5% of revenue.
A new head office for one of the group businesses was successfully engineered with technology enablers to deliver a new way of working which is collaborative and more customer-focused. Although Infrastructure can these days be taken for granted this has all been rebuilt using virtualisation, load balancing and clustering techniques, together with a new high-resilience WAN, private cloud and internet blended with some new cloud services. The aim here is to support a 24x7x365 customer digital experience, staff choice of working well outside 'standard available hours' to meet customer access need, and to have a sound platform as part of an offer to provide outsourced ICT services to smaller housing organisations, thus becoming a revenue generator.
Describe how you have used organisational and third-party information to provide insight that has benefited your organisation, its customers and products or services
Boiled down, the businesses in the group have two key components – customers and assets (property to let). The interaction of these two delivers a financial outcome. To better understand them we have undertaken a big data exercise bringing in third-party information to blend with multiple sources of our own, even down to staff expenses. Existing and prospective customers have now been classified into 12 different types, with each having differing predominant circumstances, behaviours and expectations.
Driving knowledge of the customer group type to any members of staff having customer interaction facilitates better outcomes through focused questions, faster understanding and appropriate proposals. Meanwhile a similar exercise across all 40,000 properties that we own to understand value, potential physical maintenance needs and influencing factors such as geographic area blend to inform investment decisions in maintenance, development and even disposal.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
IT is organised into streams of activity, the heads of which form an IT management team. Each member of the management team is charged with being the business partner for a designated part of the group. Recognising that any good IT function has to have strong foundations, there is a dedicated service desk managed and operating under ITIL principles and an infrastructure team to ensure strong reliable underlying platforms and end points.
A business systems team is responsible for implementing all new line-of-business systems, handling approved changes and maintaining existing line-of-business systems. A problem, change and configuration manager ensures delivery of the appropriate ITIIL controls.
Strategic projects aligned to business strategy are approved and agreed by a steering group comprising me and the managing directors of each group member business. Demand-led projects come through the service portal and are analysed and added to the approval workflow. Project managers and business analysts managed by the PMO work with the business to plan and implement projects supported and resourced by specialists from the other teams.
A data warehouse team construct and maintain business intelligence dashboards, driven by a group of senior staff from across the business. The DW team are working towards delivering strong predictive analytics. A small ICT training team creates and delivers training on all new systems and system changes.
Describe your role in the development of digital strategy in your organisation
A group of three people are responsible to the CEO for developing digital strategy – me, the head of communications and a director of neighbourhood services. In practice the digital strategy was written by me in consultation with and supported by the others. This has then been run by a small group of digital champions selected from across the group, with feedback used to hone the strategy. All staff are kept appraised by regular communications, almost all now through our digital channels, in addition to six-monthly roadshows, which we create and deliver at each primary geographic location.
Describe how you use and promote technology to redesign the processes, services and structures of your organisation to enable it to become more efficient and customer-focused
There has been an extensive and ongoing programme of process redesign. Each of these has been forced to start and end with what is good for the customer by briefing and by review. And everybody is regularly reminded that efficiency is not only good for us but is good for the customer in many ways.
With a geographically dispersed group the creation of networked whiteboards and videoconferencing has proved a powerful facilitator, while even the implementation of ClickShare in all meeting rooms has made collaboration much easier. SharePoint is used extensively as a collaboration tool internally and Box has been used externally. Yammer is used to keep all members and interested parties informed of progress.
Once processes and workflows have been redesigned and resource planned, organisational structures are viewed and can be amended on a drag and drop basis using a tool embedded in the HR system. Once completed, this updates all reporting line data in the HR system, including changes to appraisals, etc, and also updates the finance system for management accounting purposes.
How do you engage regularly with your organisation about your team and the role of technology in the organization, and what impact is this having?
There are multiple channels of engagement with the organisation. Each member of the IT management team has a designated part of the group to be business partner with. I personally engage with all of the group executives and attend a number of senior leadership team meetings of each group business. At least one senior IT team member is closely involved with every working group across the business. Each member of the entire IT team is tasked with spending at least two days per year shadowing an allocated role in one of the group businesses.
A monthly newsletter is created and placed on the intranet together with a live feed of progress on our entire programme. Yammer is used as a tool in each project group to inform the project team and all parts of the business who wish to engage. Digitally produced posters are also created with important updates and key messages to channel those who are not yet fully digitally engaged. The six-monthly digital roadshow is effectively an IT roadshow to all staff.
The result of this activity is a much greater level of engagement – in fact, excitement in some areas – with the business. Where the business was seen as lagging behind its peers, it is now seen as a leader, which is inspiring most of its staff with a powerful vision.
How do you use social networks to engage in conversations across the industry about the opportunities and challenges technology is creating?
I have used social network tools to build a large and diverse network which is still growing. As well as engaging in discussion about specific areas of interest I will seek out specialists in areas where I need to strengthen and enter into dialogue with them. I seek to supplement this with face-to-face engagement at physical conferences. I also look to discussion boards on publishers' sites and regularly download and read white papers.
How do you bring the organisation together to explore and discuss technology and its challenges and to develop stronger alignment of the technology function with the full business?
I run a twice-yearly forum with senior stakeholders to present the updated art of the possible and to facilitate discussion about what benefits, challenges and opportunities these could bring to the business. These stakeholders will then adopt a potential new piece of technology to explore it with the IT team and to become its champion if appropriate. As champion the senior stakeholder then has to sell this to the IT steering group to be considered for inclusion in the evolving IT strategy.
Describe how you keep up to date with developments in technology and IT management
I read a number of magazines (both online and paper) and derive a lot of value from CIO magazine articles. I also source information and knowledge from sponsored links on social media. I make a point of listening to vendors and participating in surveys that result in seeing the output report. I regularly attend IT management and technology seminars and workshops (often involving a 400-mile round trip to do so) and have spoken at a few. Further I ensure that I attend roundtable events that are sector as opposed to discipline-specific so that I get a rounded view of the sector in which my business sits.
Provide an example of how you have developed the diversity and improved the culture of your team
The culture of the team has been developed to think like the customer and behave as an enabling business partner. In almost two years there has not been any turnover of staff in the IT team, though some strategic additional appointments have been made. This has limited the capacity to develop diversity, although in these appointments there is a single parent, two people with physical disability and one with minor mental health issues. I have supported the existing diversity where there are opportunities by, for example, supporting adoption leave for one of the team in a same-sex partnership.
Describe how you collaborate and influence the organisation and its leadership team
The leadership team is geographically distributed and formed from a wide spread of business cultures emanating from the variety of businesses that formed the federated group. Each of these has its own agenda, which includes being different to the rest. The tasks of collaboration and influence are somewhat akin to herding cats – some of which are feral. I have worked hard with each one to understand their particular business with its heritage and its challenges, and looked to find issues where a common approach would gain agreement to the benefit for all. As each of these has worked through and delivered, the receptiveness and level of trust has improved.
Tell us how you have developed your own management, leadership and personal skills, perhaps through mentoring, training or external activities
I regularly self-analyse to plan which areas I want to concentrate on improving. I read books on key subjects and try out new ideas to continually evolve and improve my skills. Additionally, I network at both technical and business events and learn what has worked, or not, for other people. In working with the senior leadership teams I talk about their approaches and experiences, and techniques they have found and evolved. I also solicit feedback from my IT management team as part of regular one-to-one sessions
What new technologies are you investigating, tracking or experimenting with?
We have been investigating and implementing several enterprise apps, including some specific to property surveying, which drive great productivity improvements. We have done a lot of work on data analytics through building a Microsoft SQL data warehouse with a series of data cubes focused on key aspects, with output as 3D animations surfaced through SharePoint, and with live data linked into associated PowerPoint presentation material.
We have been implementing a considerable amount of business process automation and are actively investigating several strands of internet of things applications for property management and control as well as support of vulnerable customers. We are at an early stage of investigating 3D printing. We are also at an early stage of investigating wearable technology – particularly to help with the safety of lone worker staff.
How do you decide where to apply the best technological approach?
The choice of cloud or not is driven the volume of sensitive data that may be involved, how open the service needs to be and the level of maturity of the system vendor. We have implemented cloud services for telephony, the IT service management system, some data analytics for compliance reporting and the training system. We do not undertake wholly bespoke work and always seek to utilise and configure off-the-shelf systems.
Do you give yourself and your team time each month to assess or learn about technology vendors outside of the established providers?
I spend at least one day per month assessing technology vendors outside our current establishment. Each of the IT management team is tasked to do this in their areas so that we jointly come up with views. Each manager also places a half-day requirement on their team members.
Describe your sourcing strategy and your strategic suppliers
Sourcing strategy is to find best of breed in each strategic area and to maximise the spread of that vendor rather than bring on many more niche vendors. Coupled with an active vendor management programme this enables us to leverage vendors to meet our requirements while reducing the effort needed for effective vendor management.
Strategic suppliers are Microsoft (all server and end-point OS, plus Office applications, plus data warehousing, Gamma (cloud telephony and contact centre, virtual network operator MPLS WAN, co-lo datacentre management (Sungard)), Orchard (all housing management, customer management and related activities), Documotive (document management and mobile working platform, Dell (all servers and end-points), Cisco (all switches and routers), ServiceNow (cloud IT service management).
Describe the technology innovations that you have introduced in the last year and what they have enabled
New cloud telephony service has enabled merging of voice, social media, digital platform, email and text channels to contact centre agents, giving a wider set of options to customers and greater agent utilisation. This has removed the maintenance of hardware and enables easy reconfiguration through a portal for activities that effectively required reprogramming with the preceding system.
A new HR system gives the business resource planning, scenario modelling and advanced reporting while also passing a lot more to line managers. The HR and payroll system will save around £1.4m over four years for a £250k investment while also delivering a better user experience. Paper payslips that were still used for staff who do not use a networked PC or laptop are now abolished as they are web-enabled and optimised for mobile. A test and innovation lab has been built to explore new technologies and user experiences.
What strategic technology deals have been struck and with whom? What uniquely do they bring?
A deal with Gamma has fused MPLS WAN management, with advanced cloud telephony and contact centre management as well as co-lo datacentre management and ultra-resilient internet access. Future plans could include LAN management as well. As a single supplier we have greater leverage and one point to manage. We are highly placed to be an early customer for a new technology about to be launched which will improve the mobile working experience.
Rate how important your sources of innovative technology suppliers are
- Always referred to: CIO peers, industry body, media.
- Occasionally use: analyst houses, consultants.
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
How is cyber security led and discussed by senior management?
Cyber security is briefed to the executive team and the IT steering group and it is made clear that it is everybody's responsibility. New threats and potential solutions are discussed at each steering group meeting and as appropriate at executive meetings. A regular penetration test is conducted by a highly regarded specialist – NCC – who also brief us on any new matters we should investigate. The new website under construction is being code-evaluated for security – also by NCC
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What is the annual IT budget?
How much of your IT budget is capital and how much revenue?
£3m and £3m.
What is your budget's operational/development split?
How many users does your department supply services to?
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
Are you increasing your headcount to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
What is the split between in-house/outsourced staff?
30 / 2.