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Unsung heroes get their reward

The National Housing Federation’s IT Department have achieved Accreditation to the National Computing Centre’s Standard for IT Departments. Michael Dean wonders if their story sounds familiar?

Let’s face it, working in IT can sometimes be quite frustrating. Ironically, one of those frustrations can be borne out of the success and professionalism of the IT department itself. This is true of the ICT Department at the National Housing Federation (the Federation) where the IT functions so well, that a lot of the time the staff and the business don’t realise there is an IT department! The Federation is the trade body for housing associations in England. They operate as a membership body, a lobbying organisation representing their 1200 members, a conference organiser and a training supplier. Rob Green is Head of ICT at the Federation, “As with many organisations IT can be thought of as a utility; often nobody is fully aware of the IT department until something goes wrong. Occasionally it is a bit like that at the Federation, though it is a testament to the professionalism of my colleagues in IT that things very rarely do go wrong. Being always on and always there for our customers is great for the business, but occasionally IT can feel taken for granted”.

Rob and his team of six are not short of things to do however. Apart from Rob’s input to ICT Strategy development and the provision of IT services to 150 staff (many of whom are now capable of working flexibly, or from home), the team are responsible for providing ICT services for the Federation’s showcase Lion Court Conference Centre, Lion Court itself and its three regional offices in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham. Each of the locations have been fully equipped with the latest video conferencing facilities to enable better communication between the Federation and its membership as well providing the organisation with a new revenue stream.

Efficient and effective communication between members and others is vital for the on-going effectiveness of the Federation and a constant concern for Rob, “We are in regular communication with our Membership and it is vital that we keep abreast of the applications they are using so we can seamlessly communicate with them. This typically involves a faster application refresh cycle than other organisations”. In consequence Rob expects the Federation to be an early adopter of hybrid cloud based services. “We are a PC shop now but are planning to move to thin client, as a precursor to going cloud bound. We would like to make a seamless transition at some point – hopefully it will be business as usual for our users but the business itself will benefit.”

Rob’s ethos is professionalism throughout and the adoption of standards where appropriate, “We are a relatively small team and although we’d like to seek accreditation to a lot of standards to demonstrate our professionalism to the business and its stakeholders, we haven’t the time or budget to work our way through every one. Quite often we will pick the most pertinent processes from the ‘major standards’ and adopt those. The downside is we have little to show the stakeholders that we are actually a best practice function”. Rob continued, “And that was something I wanted to resolve by taking the Federation through the NCC IT Department Accreditation (ITDA) programme.”

“What is great about the ITDA is that it not only provides us with an independent benchmark of our performance across all the critical areas but also gives us a solid framework for business process improvement, enabling us to address any issues raised.”

The assessment scheme which underpins the NCC ITDA examines an IT department’s performance against 110 common controls, enabling the department to compare and understand its own strengths and weaknesses. The ITDA is also an accreditation scheme, so those IT departments who score well will also be awarded with a recognised accreditation to the NCC Standard. The ITDA provides a framework for Business Management, Business Direction, Business or Service Generation, Delivery and Operations and Customer Relationships. Another reason for the Federation choosing to take the NCC route to Accreditation was IT staff morale, “I wanted the IT team to feel good about themselves, they are the unsung heroes and deserved independent recognition.” Enthused Rob.

Once the decision had been made to apply for accreditation, regular Monday morning ITDA meetings were set up to enable the team to discuss their progress towards accreditation. It wasn’t long before they appreciated another ITDA benefit. Because of the workload, many of the IT Department’s processes were not fully documented, but the approach provided by the ITDA gave them a framework to build a robust procedures manual. “Although our processes followed best practice, the lack of full documentation meant that if the CEO asked why we did something in a particular way, we were on the back foot. Now with guidance from NCC, we have built reason, robustness and repeatability into our processes and have improved operational efficiencies in a number of areas which has enabled us to manage our workload more effectively.”

Whilst Rob’s team did indeed pass the ITDA, Rob recognizes that there is still work to do. All ITDA applicants also receive a bespoke Action Plan which identifies areas for continuous improvement, so the ICT department now has a set of actions that build on the work already undertaken, and will prepare them for the next annual ITDA review. In Rob’s words, The IT Team were “really pleased” with the result and morale within the department has improved significantly. “We want the rest of the organisation to know how good we are too and have started to include the NCC Accredited Logo on all our external correspondence whether it is emails or letters.” He said.

Finally Rob would recommend that Member organisations of the Federation undergo the ITDA process for themselves, “Many of our members have IT functions similar to us in size, capability and environment, so I would certainly recommend the ITDA to them. The ITDA framework is great way to build a service portfolio based on acknowledged best practice, and you only have to comply with the elements of the Standard that are pertinent to the nature of your function. And if you need a tool to boost staff morale in difficult times, this is definitely the way to achieve this.”

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