Data integrity: the Philosopher’s Stone

James Tickell, Partner at Campbell Tickell, discusses how having good data integrity can be a base for transformation within an organisation.

Many of Campbell Tickell’s clients are social landlords large and small. They may be charities, social enterprises, local authorities, ALMOs, whatever, but among other things they are businesses too. Some are large, with 50,000 homes, one or two have even 100,000 or more; others are smaller; but they all face similar challenges. With all those customers and properties, digitisation is of course much on their minds, as a way of improving services and value for money at the same time. So too is transformation. Many organisations have had a series of transformation programmes over the years. Indeed we’ve become familiar with the concept of transformation fatigue in some at least.

Now the pandemic has forced an unexpected turbo-charged transformation upon us, with home-working becoming the sudden norm, not to mention the newly discovered Zoom fatigue. And it has generally worked better than expected. Importantly, it has re-energised the appetite for real transformation, and we’ve all seen that major change doesn’t always have to take 5 years. Stepping back, we can see a real vision, even if it’s a tantalisingly distant one, of how a truly digitised business model might look and feel.

So what have we learned about getting there?

Here are ten points for starters:

  1. It’s not about digital: Transformation isn’t about IT systems; they are just the means to the end. If transformation is driven by the capabilities of what certain systems can or can’t do, then it won’t meet the needs of the business. What matters is the fundamental operating model, and transformation is about creating a new and better model. If you simply digitise what you’re doing now, you’re just setting in stone the old way of doing things.
  2. It is about leadership: Transformation is ultimately about leadership. Weak leaders can hide behind transformation programmes and restructurings for a while, but they’ll get found out. You can outsource aspects of transformation, but you can’t outsource leadership.
  3. Own the process: Don’t let consultants lead, especially those with a cookie-cutter approach, who want to impose a process on you because that’s what they do. Don’t leave IT to the IT specialists either. Transformation needs to be driven by vision. Partners and suppliers need to be chosen carefully, for their values as well as their skills.
  4. Assemble skills and capacity: Hire a good Chief Information Officer and have them on the top team. Make sure there are good tech skills right the way from governance to front line levels. Second your best people on to the transformation project, and let others back-fill for them. Learn from other landlords and their experiences – the pandemic has been a catalyst for better collaboration and sharing within the wider housing sector.
  5. Have a cunning plan: Don’t kick off the project until you’re good and ready. Consult widely, and set up new forums and panels to guide the process and get wide buy-in. And make sure your plan has some wriggle-room for setbacks. If things don’t seem to be working, have the courage to put the process on hold; if necessary, don’t let group-think stop you pulling the plug on the whole thing before it’s too late.
  6. Hear the wisdom of tenants: Customers and front line staff know best, but you have to ask the right questions in the right way, and really listen to the answers – put yourself on receive not transmit.
  7. Put diversity at the heart: New operating models need to cater for the whole community – remember in particular people who are disabled, don’t speak English as a first language, can’t afford internet, or are less tech-savvy. The number of tenants without any internet access at all may be as low as 5% (or even 2% according to one landlord) but many have intermittent access or limited skills.
  8. Fear the legacy IT: Obsolete systems have become the work of Beelzebub, and they have a sting in the tail. The task of uploading data from an old to a new system is a near-guarantee of data loss. Speaking of data integrity, the use of work-around Excel spreadsheets to reconcile information from different systems is another surefire recipe for losing data between the cracks.
  9. Communicate good results not good intentions: They say you can’t communicate too much, which is broadly true. But be honest about what you’re trying to achieve, and about what’s working well and – more importantly – what isn’t. In any case, people will judge you mainly on what you do, not what you say you’re going to do. It takes at least six months for perception to catch up with reality. So plan for that, and celebrate success once it’s properly embedded. If you tell everyone that the latest transformation is “different this time”, they may just groan or ignore the message. But once they can see that it’s actually different, that’s a game-changer.
  10. Bring some world-weary realism to the table: Sadly, there are no all-singing all-dancing new systems that will do everything you want straight out of the box. Integrating your systems with those of suppliers and contractors hardly ever works as well it should or could; in fact getting different systems to talk to each other is a frequent pitfall; system updates are a particular moment of data stress.

So … data integrity is the touch stone for success, but – to mix a metaphor – it’s also the Achilles heel. Pretty much any organisation formed by a series of mergers over the years will have a data integrity problem or two.

So … don’t bother with expensive transformation programmes until you’ve got good basic data integrity. Make it a top priority and invest in it, for it is the very Philosopher’s Stone of transformation.

To discuss further, please contact James Tickell on: james.tickell@campbelltickell.com

More insight

This article is a part two of: Going digital at pace.

Hear more from James Tickell, in FixFlo’s webinar from the 16th July: ‘Digitising Property Business At Scale’

 

Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

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