Post Office's £1m Lab project at the cutting edge

John Riley was invited to the Post Office's new Innovation Laboratory in Rugby. There, line managers are encouraged to open their...

John Riley was invited to the Post Office's new Innovation Laboratory in Rugby. There, line managers are encouraged to open their minds to the potential of IT to transform the way they work

The Post Office's new £1m Innovation Laboratory in Rugby is designed to stimulate ideas, technology awareness and intuitive data interpretation from ordinary non-technical line managers.

The initiative follows the success of its temporary ideas lab which, over the past two years, according to Post Office futurist Howard Wright, has stimulated more than 1.4 million ideas from about 8,500 visitors - mainly internal managerial staff.

The lab, a spacious new customised building comprising many activity areas and colourful, state-of-the-art environments, encourages employees to open up their minds to innovation.

Exhibits range from the familiar to the strange, from PCs to Wap phones, to a strong practical focus on multi-dimensional representation and interpretation of both structured and unstructured data. The whole aim is to stimulate a climate of creativity and awareness of the practical potential and relevance of new technology.

Starting with a mildly psychedelic "innovation transporter" experience, complete with blue and purple lights, the Lab aims to fast-track line managers into relaxed mode. "It's like entering the Starship Enterprise," enthused Alan Shepherd, director of research and head of the Post Office Research Group (PORG).

The tour proper begins with a synapse-loosening "home of the future" which has novelties such as: a worktop PC, down-projected from the ceiling; an intelligent toaster which burns messages into the toast; and an Internet-linked fridge.

Then follows a comparable "office of the future", a coffee bar, demos of relevant user-friendly software and many other examples of innovation, such as Tessa, the voice-activated sign-language interpreter to enable Post Office counter staff to communicate with the deaf.

"When board members start playing with finger Muppets, you've cracked it," said Duncan Chapman, head of research services at PORG, "they're then at ease and at their most creative."

The demonstrations will be changed regularly to create a dynamic environment searching for practical and lateral input into future business-to-consumer, consumer-to-consumer and business-to-business postal products and services.

The overall strategy, said Maureen Gardiner, PORG's head of future markets, is to use standard existing technology. For example, when extrapolating correlations and relationships from the database, the emphasis is on integrating human experience rather than reliance on blue sky technology.

"We were going to go the artificial intelligence route," said Gardiner, "but decided that standard techniques such as pattern matching help give intuition back to the manager."

Testing the strategies

There are several areas set aside for strategic, normally half-day, workshops, for envisaging scenarios and then stress-testing the strategies. A permanent team of "futurists"is on hand to guide ordinary managers towards turning dreams into business plans.

No sticky blue tack is needed - all the walls are felt-tip-friendly. Graffiti is encouraged and brainstorming ideas are digitally photographed and sifted for practical use. In this way the 1.4 million brainstorming ideas already collected will grow fast.

Wright says the lab is looking at ways of measuring the benefits. Instead of merely counting visitors, he said the lab is actively auditing outcomes - measuring the impact on the business on a six-monthly and annual basis. "We are looking for tangibles,"he explained, "to be able to say, for example, that a certain product started its life cycle here."

The lab has strong collaboration with other organisations and particularly with universities, including de Montfort University, York University and the University of East Anglia.

De Montfort University designed the "home of the future"and the "office of the future"experiences, incorporating prototype technology such as a talking toaster and an intelligent kitchen worktop from MIT in the US.

Tessa, the British Computer Society Medal-winning sign-language interpreter, was developed for deaf and dumb customers with the University of East Anglia. On display in the Science Museum, and already on trial in some post offices, Tessa is already a success, despite technical challenges coping with about 300 different dialects of sign language.

York University collaborated with its tool, called eBor, which demonstrates the potential power of data mining structured information.

There is a strong emphasis on practicality and on getting business value from data assets. For example, one visual data mining tool, which represents complex data in five dimensions, using colour and shape, was used for real in an occupational health application which analysed employee health data. That was successfully sold to Bupa.

Through another simple visualisation application, which correlates various measures across different parts of the business, the Post Office was able to better understand how and when pensioners pick up their pensions within the UK.

This enabled the cash float for pensions, typically around £300m, to be reduced by about 40%, said PORG senior researcher Henryk Trzbiatowski.

The lab allows mid-level line managers to gain an instant grasp of how, for example, Ishakawa Fish Diagrams show up correlations; how the Red Sheriff product gives you clickstream analysis; and how Autonomy's Kenjin knowledge management technology works.

"Managers look at the graphs and that sets hares running," said Trzbiatowski, "and then you need the techies to help explain the findings."

The search for insight also extends to hardware devices. Wap is already used as part of TV licence collection activity and potential applications are being sought now for the next generation of broadband mobile devices.

"We don't know yet how it will be used in the Post Office, but we are looking for ideas,"said Gardiner.

There are also examples of large-scale collaboration. For example, an Esprit collaboration with Deutsche Post, Pitney Bowes, Lufthansa, and others, which demonstrates an advanced track and trace system which pre-warns logistics managers in one country of extraordinary batches coming its way.

Post Office line managers can see information-rich radio-frequency tags embedded into letters - the next generation of two-dimensional bar codes.

Above all, they can see tangible results from the Post Office's £3.2m seed Innovation Fund, Started in May 1997, it invests both internally and externally in high-risk, high-benefit projects.

All this investment aims at one end, to use the power and capability of fairly standard IT tools to unleash the lateral power of non-IT staff.

Any scepticism the board had two years ago about the value of an ideas lab has now vanished. John Roberts, chief executive, told Computer Weekly at the opening: "Technology is not front of mind in an organisation like the Post Office. This centre is an excellent way of helping bring it to the fore."

Innovation Lab sponsors

Suppliers backing the Post Office's Innovation Lab include: Microsoft, BT, Wyse, Fujitsu, Citrix, Compaq, NEC, Lotus, Madge, IBM, Nortel, Toshiba, Veritas and Business Objects.

The lab cost about £1m to build, hardware suppliers, such as Compaq, Microsoft, Nortel and IBM, have provided more than £300,000 of sponsored equipment and a further £400,000 has gone into interior display, lighting and so on.

The core networking technology for the lab comprises 100 megabits per second (mbps) Ethernet, 11mbps wireless, Gigabit fibre for the servers and 2mbps connections to the Internet, all tied in with a Compaq-based storage area network under Windows 2000.

Post Office Innovation Fund

The Post Office is spending £3.2m this year on high-risk, high-benefit projects through its Innovation Fund. This goes on both external and internal innovation, including, for example, taking new technology from outside and applying it to the Post Office's own environment.

Examples of projects set up since May 1997, and on display at the Innovation Lab include:

  • Infrared Thermography (in collaboration with Irisys): high-spec infrared cameras are used to examine, for example, bearings and belts on sorting machines to optimise maintenance.

  • Post Pilot: a virtual reality CD-Rom/Internet prompt demonstration aid for sales teams.

  • Data Visualisation: is being developed for a range of applications, for example, employee health; security; sales and distribution; and clients' supply chains.

  • Searchlight: a crime management project.

  • Sulphur lighting: experiments in London to provide full spectrum daylight lighting which is more healthy than fluorescent lighting.

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