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Aster Group

NCC ITDA Case Study

“It’s not about pass or fail, it’s about quality of service, professionalism and continuous performance improvement.”Aster Group

Aster Group is now accredited to the National Computing Centre’s Standard for IT Departments. IT director Roy Thompson talks to Michael Dean about why Aster’s IT team applied, the benefits the company is getting from accreditation, and its continuous improvement programme.

The organisation 

Aster is a thriving partnership providing homes and housing-related services in central, southern and south-west England. Group companies have assets exceeding £600 million, an annual turnover of £83 million and between them employ around 1,200 people, of whom 800 are directly supported by IT. The operating companies own and manage over 17,000 homes.

Formed in 2005 from a number of regional housing associations, Aster’s vision is of ‘Passion for excellence; pride in performance’ and the IT team certainly plays a significant role in helping the company achieve its objectives. The 18-strong function was the first group-wide service at Aster to deliver support centrally.

Roy Thompson, a former IBMer, is the IT director: “These are tough times for us all and the housing sector isn’t immune. Grant funding is being squeezed and there is a drive to do more with less. Since Aster was formed we’ve been integrating and consolidating IT across the group, driving efficiencies and ensuring we have the optimum structure to add real value to the organisation.”

IT has recently been through a significant restructure which was the final step in applying consistency across group IT services. “This has been a step change, an opportunity to look critically at our structure to ensure that we’re truly in concert with the business,” said Thompson. “IT at Aster is ambitious and we’re changing perceptions, from IT being a break/fix service to being able to offer strategic analysis and deliver change flexibly and quickly.”

Reasons for accreditation 

With the restructured function bedding down, Thompson felt it would be a good time to get an objective view of the maturity of IT. “I felt we should take stock of what we had achieved so far, make sure we were going in the right direction and compare ourselves with our peers,” he said.

After reviewing his options, Thompson chose to take IT through the National Computing Centre’s business improvement programme, the IT Department Accreditation (ITDA) scheme. “I wasn’t looking for an audit. I didn’t want a tick-box exercise,” he explained. “I was looking for an objective, expert review of what we do and an insight into how others are tackling the same issues. For us, applying for accreditation isn’t about pass or fail, it’s about quality of service, professionalism and continuous performance improvement.”

IT Department Accreditation scheme 

The NCC ITDA scheme is a unique business improvement programme with a certification scheme which recognises excellence and promotes effectiveness. The assessment process which underpins the NCC ITDA examines an IT department’s performance against 103 common controls (lines of enquiry), permitting IT departments to compare and understand their own strengths and weaknesses. The standard covers the key aspects of an IT function: business management, business direction, service generation, delivery and operations, and customer relationships – all with a focus on their contribution to business goals.

The process

The first stage of the ITDA process is an orientation visit where the NCC assessor meets the applicant, introduces the standard and discusses the evidence required to support the application. “We had a good discussion about the lines of enquiry to be evidenced,” said Thompson. “Our philosophy at Aster is to be as professional as possible, but avoid unnecessary bureaucracy. Our processes are designed for what the business wants, which isn’t necessarily what an auditor is looking for. Our assessor was very understanding and advised that appropriateness and business outcome are key considerations in the assessment.” To encourage commitment Thompson shared the preparation for assessment with his team of managers.

The assessment day took place three months after the orientation visit and this proved to be the most useful part of the accreditation for Thompson and his team. “The assessment was an opportunity to review our processes and procedures with an objective expert,” he said. “It was a good learning exercise as the assessor didn’t just review evidence against the standard, he also discussed how others approached similar issues and compared how we fared. It wasn’t a typical audit, and because I involved the wider IT management team in the whole process, they were able to get a better understanding of the challenges and pressures their colleagues were under.”

Part of the assessment includes an independent survey of the views of IT’s customers on service delivery. In Aster’s case the results were very positive with IT being well-regarded. “The reputation of IT stands and falls on the relationship we have with our users,” said Thompson. “We don’t deliver a Service Desk approach, our aim is to deliver a broader Desktop Support service; we put a lot of effort in the ‘front-of-house’ relationship and I’m pleased to see it’s having a positive effect.”

The outcome 

The overall assessment did uncover some areas where greater maturity would benefit the organisation, such as in change and project management, but current processes had appropriate rigour for the size of the organisation. “The assessor was able to identify weaknesses we were already aware of and have been actively trying to improve,” said Thompson. “It was reassuring that the assessor came to the same conclusions, effectively endorsing that we were on the right track.” The assessor concluded that IT at Aster Group was fit for purpose and duly recommended accreditation to the NCC standard. This decision was subsequently endorsed by NCC’s independent moderator.

Following the assessment, Thompson was presented with an action plan which recommends and prioritises areas of improvement for the year ahead. Progress against the plan will be reviewed at the annual Light Touch Review.

“Our Group Leadership Team is particularly pleased with our achievement,” said Thompson. “The award has endorsed the quality and business focus of the IT service and lends a significant amount of credibility to our work. Going through the NCC accreditation is not just about leaping over a hurdle, it’s more about getting an objective and comparative assessment of where you stand and a steer to continuous improvement that’s right for your circumstances. The ITDA is a great way to motivate the team with both recognition and stimulation to do even better.”

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