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CIO interview: Catherine Doran, Royal Mail

Royal Mail CIO talks about replacing legacy systems, new contracts and moving to a platform-based model

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Royal Mail CIO Catherine Doran is pressing ahead with a massive IT-led transformation and is getting ready for what is predicted to be “the most challenging and hardest” delivery year for technology in the history of the postal service.

In December last year, Royal Mail delivered 6% more parcels than in December 2014, and saw an 11% rise in the number of European packages despite fierce competition from online rivals such as Amazon.

The postal service also recorded 4.6 million unique online visits each day – a rise of about 30% from the year before.

This level of activity calls for increased investment in its online presence, more customer engagement and ways of making life easier for users, says Doran. 

Driving automation across the postal delivery machine also requires several interdependent and complex IT projects and programmes that must be completed in the right order.   

“Royal Mail as a business is transforming itself, and technology is a key enabler of that transformation,” Doran tells Computer Weekly. “And we have to do a lot very quickly because there was a period of time when [IT] was under-invested, so there is catching up to be done.

“We are in a very, very busy and changing world, but we made some pretty nice progress during the year. We are all pretty much flat out all the time.”

Delivering technology projects that support Royal Mail’s investment in its parcel business is imperative for the IT team. 

Over the past few months, the main projects in that space have revolved around the upgrade of the Postal Digital Assistant (PDA) estate and the replacement of the parcels platform.

Replace its PDAs

About a year ago, Royal Mail started a project to replace its PDAs. Since then, it has gone to market for two elements. The first was a managed service for its 76,000 devices, awarded to BT and already in place. 

The second element of the PDA procurement exercise was the devices themselves, which would need to be toughened to withstand harsh working conditions. Zebra Technologies was picked to supply the equipment. 

“We also wanted to be able to vary the devices, as well as the operating system we ran on them so we wouldn’t get locked in,” says Doran. 

The PDA trial was a pretty big win for us last year and we feel really good about it
Catherine Doran, Royal Mail

The programme took place throughout 2015, with the latest phase going live at the end of January 2016, following pilots in mail centres. Another trial stage, this time on deliveries on the road, is now being carried out before the actual roll-out, due to complete in November 2016.

 “[The PDA trial] was a pretty big win for us last year and we feel really good about it,” says Doran. 

This year will be crucial in terms of getting the new PDAs rolled out at scale, she adds. That is because the postal service has calculated that in its busiest period, it would expect the traffic through the PDA estate to be able to handle 4.5 million transactions in the peak hour. 

Improving the parcel business infrastructure 

The PDA project is linked to the replacement of the legacy system supporting Royal Mail’s parcel operation. This is essential in order to meet the need to track parcels. Although the postal system already had tracking capabilities, the old platform could not meet the growing demand. 

This prompted the decision to introduce a new event management suite supplied by Tibco to support the parcel delivery operation. 

The module Business Works is used to provide the external-facing services, including consumer pre-advice and mail events, plus ‘track and trace’ enquiries, while the Enterprise Message Service system is used as messaging middleware to simplify and accelerate the integration and management of data distribution. 

Other components of the Tibco suite used by Royal Mail are Business Event, which is used to implement business rules such as duplicate scan checking, and ActiveSpace, a data cache to hold live parcel data. Another component is Hawk, a module that provides application monitoring and management.

Doran said the Tibco platform was chosen because of its ability to scale. 

“There is no point in having a parcel system to track parcels if you haven’t got barcodes on those parcels – as well as the PDAs in place that are able to scan the barcodes, so you’ve got proof of delivery,” she says.

Ensuring that the infrastructure behind these business processes can cope with the predicted demand is an enormous task, says the CIO. 

“It’s one thing to get things working in the early stages through pilots, but actually, fine-tuning this beast, so that it’s able to handle Christmas 2016, is a huge job for us.” 

Customer-focused initiatives  

According to Doran, keeping a steady flow of customer-focused initiatives is also a crucial part of the job for the IT organisation. 

“We have a massive focus on our customers now, whether they be senders or recipients of either mail or parcels, because today’s recipient is tomorrow’s customer,” she says. “I have various things planned around that.”

Shortly before Christmas 2015, Royal Mail completed a project to obtain a unified profile of its dealings with customers. 

This is based on IBM Teradata and Infoshare Clearcore technology, which cleanses, enriches and matches data from disparate sources and brings it together into a single view.

Catherine Doran, Royal Mail

“Fine-tuning this beast, so that it’s able to handle Christmas 2016, is a huge job for us”

Catherine Doran, Royal Mail

“Basically, we have created a single view of the customer based on the data we have,” says Doran. “Because we interact with customers in different ways, we are now able to see the totality of our interaction with our customers, which is pretty neat.”

Another recent project is the implementation of a new system underpinning Royal Mail’s stamps and collectibles operation, which was completed this month. The new platform, an off-the-shelf product from Epicor, was deployed by the supplier and Capgemini to replace a legacy AS400 system developed in-house. 

Recent deliveries also include the introduction of an API management capability in December 2015. 

“Our strategy is that we will have a published set of APIs that people will be able to exploit,” says Doran. “If they want to gain access to our publicly available data, either personally or for use in their business, they will be able to do it without reference to us. 

“We now have a couple of APIs that have been put out there already and we have a plan to have that as an ongoing initiative. So again, that’s all in tune with making it easy for people to do business with us.”

Optimising internal operations 

As well as continued improvements in automated mail sorting and developing additional products and services for customers, projects that will keep Royal Mail’s IT busy during 2016 will continue to focus on ways to improve internal operations. 

Doran is looking to implement a production and control system that will allow the mail service to optimise the “final mile in the journey” for its delivery staff, by optimising routes based on the traffic coming in that day. 

It’s all about automation and obtaining the intelligence to actually understand what’s where
Catherine Doran, Royal Mail

“We’ve got 37 mail centres, more than 14,000 delivery offices and some 110,000 postmen and postwomen,” she says. 

“So we are asking: how does that machine operate today and what can we do to optimise it?” 

For example, Royal Mail added telemetry to its fleet last year. Today, 2,500 heavy goods vehicles are fitted with IsoTrak telemetry, while 7,500 large vehicles are fitted with Microlise technology and 12,600 small vans have Trimble telemetry on board. 

“[Telemetry] is good for reducing our fuel bill,” she says. “So it’s all about automation and obtaining the intelligence to actually understand what’s where.”

When it comes to other business intelligence initiatives, Doran has built an internal data science capability to analyse Royal Mail’s information from various parts of the organisation. This is intended to help the company to get a better insight on future customer trends and demand, as well as operational requirements. 

“In terms of data mining, we are building our own data links and using Hadoop and other tools to get in and see what’s happening within the business and look for trends that don’t naturally present themselves,” says Doran. 

Acting as a supplier ‘broker’

Royal Mail rearranged its supplier portfolio in 2015, with desktop management moving from CSC to Computacenter, in a transition that, according to Doran, has gone “very well”.

Application management was moved from CSC to Capgemini and HCL and this change, which has included a large-scale knowledge transfer process, has been completed. 

In addition, Tata Consulting Services and Lockheed Martin support the postal service with application development, while CSC and Steria work on larger application development projects. The new development structure has been in place for just over a year and the CIO is happy with the way things are progressing. 

“On application development, we are achieving our desired outcome of being able to talk to multiple people and understand how they would approach whatever the problem might be,” says Doran. 

Another change was the move of datacentre management from CSC to Atos and, so far, 35-40% of the applications have been moved to the new location. 

“We expect to have done the vast majority of the job of moving our applications from CSC to Atos by the end of May this year,” says Doran.  

In order to manage the supplier estate, Royal Mail has built an internal service integration and management (SIAM) function, with its own processes and tools – and that has also generated results, according to the CIO. 

“As we’ve been doing the transition between the suppliers, they then come onto our service platform, where there are ‘resolver groups’,” she says. “But we haven’t only done that with the new third parties that we signed up with last year, but also with suppliers like BT, not just for the PDA stuff, but also for our telecoms networks they provide.  

“The huge change that we introduced in terms of service during last year, is that essentially, Royal Mail moved to the centre of the spider’s web acting as a broker. 

“So when a problem occurs, then all the appropriate third parties are brought in and we work it out in collaboration. It’s really been a great experience because people have understood and come on the journey – and if people have the right sort of approach and attitude, then these things can work very well.” 

Moving to multi-sourcing

When it comes to moving away from several years of having CSC as the key provider for a number of IT functions, Doran stresses that there has been no friction during the procurement process.

“The truth is that we issued a number of different procurement opportunities to the market,” says Doran. “In a couple of cases, CSC didn’t want to bid because they didn’t see some of the things we were looking for as being part of their future strategy, so they didn’t want to enter into a new contractual relationship.

“In other cases, they did bid, and the competition across the board was pretty keen. And when it came to the application management arena, they came second and didn’t win. But we are continuing and will continue to work with CSC through 2016. 

“We expect and hope that they continue to bid for new development projects as they come along. But there are no harsh words or bitterness. It’s business.” 

Basically, we have created a single view of the customer based on the data we have
Catherine Doran, Royal Mail

According to Doran, once the transition of suppliers is finished, there is still more to do in terms of simplifying the IT estate. 

“I went to the board in the middle of last year and once we finish the transition, the agenda that we agreed last year was one of simplification for the technology,” the CIO says. 

“So instead of having hundreds of systems, we would look to aggregate them and operate a platform-based model, which would support the business horizontally rather than having systems that are unique to individual products. 

“Our thinking now is: okay, beyond the middle of this year, we would have implemented some of our platforms, but we’ve got others that we need to work on, and we’ll be doing that during this year.”                                                         

Getting ready for a busier year 

Catherine Doran heads up a large organisation at Royal Mail, which comprises about 500 permanent staff and 1,500 people employed by third parties. 

So what is the secret of keeping staff motivation levels up as well as productivity? According to the CIO, such a massive multi-year transformation programme involving so many projects and people requires constant refreshes. 

“As I look at the last 12 months, we have been at a level of ‘busy-ness’ and stress that I don’t think I have encountered before in my working life,” says Doran. 

“In the run-up to Christmas, I was starting to get quite worried because people get tired when they’re working very hard over an extended period of time. But, because we’ve had a couple of very substantial implementations and wins through December and January, the teams have got an enormous boost to their morale.

“When people feel that they can achieve things and they can see that the results are going to work and are coming good, then that’s pretty invigorating.” 

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