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Ruth Harper

Orbit Group: Transforming culture with technology

At NixonMcInnes, we work with clients who are transforming their cultures. Sometimes technology is a starting point for this change, and sometimes technology is called upon later, to facilitate major shifts in relationships and communication.

To bring some of these issues to life, we caught up with David Leach, the IT director at Orbit Housing Group to find out more about his experiences.

Orbit Group is one of the UK’s leading housing associations. They work with more than 100,000 people, making important decisions that directly affect and involve the lives of their customers. In an evolving society, Orbit recognises the imperative to redesign itself as a social business, as part of its vision for 2020.

How is the role of technology evolving at Orbit?

David’s vision for IT at Orbit is “to understand what the business is trying to do and offer solutions via technology”. He sees his role in this as helping IT to engage with the business, to be more strategic and to better support its project managers.

I am a techie, but I’m a techie with a purpose. We don’t do technology for the sake of it. It’s always about delivering what we as a business are trying to achieve – and trying to make that easier, better, more flexible, cheaper…

With a background in financial services, David moved to Orbit to add a different perspective to IT – to take it from a back-office function to a force that really drives meaningful change.

Why create a digital business strategy?

“We had been working in a very bottom-up way for the last two years – and we recognised that while there was an informal approach there was a gap between what the business strategy was and what was happening on the ground.

“We started to get some critical mass, but people were confused about what they could and couldn’t do, and what support was available.”

How does this digital strategy relate to cultural change at Orbit?

“We see the digital technology and the culture change as one and the same. We want to use culture change to enable the uptake of digital technology, and digital technology to enable the creation and adoption of new ways of thinking.”

What are the barriers to change you’ve discovered?

“There is a bit of fear – around what transparency means and what people are allowed to do. There’s also some uncertainty, linked to the current cultural mindset. People feel as though they need permission, rather than simply taking the initiative. Digital literacy and confidence have been an issue, and there is a legitimate risk around the sharing of information – what can and can’t be published.

“To combat this, leaders modelled behaviour – there is a lot of focus on the executive team to be seen as role models for digital. This modelling includes practical things. For example, the chief executive tweets, and Orbit uses digital channels extensively to share its thought leadership work.”

How have you taken the leadership with you on the journey?

“Some of the leaders were already there, but there was still a job to do in terms of spelling out the business case to the whole leadership team, explaining the benefits and recognising that this isn’t new to stakeholders, customers or residents.”

Orbit’s work around its 2020 business planning demonstrated that online communities are becoming more mainstream, regardless of demographic. Their options were clear: embrace it and lead the way, or catch up in two to three years.

As David says,

It’s not an if – it’s a when.

So what’s the business case for digital at Orbit?

For the customer:

  • Transparency of performance
  • Co-creation and involvement
  • Engagement and empowerment

And for the business:

  • There are the cold, hard numbers – a channel shift to digital is cheaper to run
  • This gives the staff the tools they need to operate in the 21st century – good for motivation and engagement, staff retention and empowerment
  • This gives front line staff an opportunity to engage residents with digital tools
  • It helps residents to get used to the idea of using digital for self-service

What are your tips for making digital transformation work?

David explains what he’s learned about implementing this kind of change:

  • Have a bottom-up AND top-down approach
  • Let people get on and do it
  • Explain to the stakeholders what’s in it for them
  • Help stakeholders understand the risks of not doing it right
  • Make the process iterative and make sure it has organisational momentum
  • If it’s already working, make it bigger

Our huge thanks go to David for taking time out of a very busy schedule to speak to us.

You can find out more by checking out Max’s blog, and you can find Orbit and David on Twitter.

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