Interview: Catherine Doran, CIO, Royal Mail

A year into the job, Royal Mail CIO Catherine Doran talks about transformation, business change, and recruiting 100 new IT staff

“Royal Mail wanted a CIO who is comfortable in a really volatile and changing environment to drive change. And I am. I joined because the scale of the challenge is huge and I would be mad to say no to that.”

Catherine Doran appears to be thriving on that challenge. One year after joining Royal Mail to oversee the postal service’s technology transformation plans, the chief information officer (CIO) is excited about seeing the first deliverables of her strategy come to life.

The government-owned postal service is being groomed for privatisation, and IT plays a crucial role in the process. It is a tall order for Doran, who joined after a few difficult years for the IT team, which included the controversial mandate of former CIO Robin Dargue, who left to join Alcatel-Lucent and was succeeded by Transport for London IT chief Yvonne Ferguson, who left after barely six months.

Doran is a seasoned CIO with an impressive CV of technology and business experience, the latest of which was at Network Rail where she led a multi-million-pound transformation programme. She admits that her new role, while enjoyable, is the most challenging of her career.

“My job at Royal Mail makes my time in previous organisations – including Network Rail – seem like a leisurely walk in the park. Understanding the complexities that arise simply because of scale – Royal Mail is five times bigger than Network Rail – has been quite a steep learning curve for me,” she tells Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.

“There is a lot going on – changes in the regulatory regime, getting the pensions sorted out, attracting external investment and separating out the Post Office operation. All of those things have a profound effect on the business strategy,” says Doran.

“Attracting investment is what we need to do – and to do that, we need to make our numbers, from a financial perspective and also from quality of service, delivery targets and so on. There is a huge emphasis on making sure we are credible on our journey, and an equal focus on delivering the goods internally,” she adds.

Defining IT priorities at Royal Mail

During the past nine months, Doran has been immersed in the creation of a five-year business plan, along with senior management. The cornerstones of that plan are based on getting the basics right, building a sustainable future and driving profitable growth.

Since everything Royal Mail does relies on technology, Doran’s slice of the strategy pie consists of ensuring that IT is not a bottleneck or something that hampers the business in its overall goals.

“I have been doing a lot of work to understand what the key priorities are and what the IT function needs to look like to partner effectively with the business and deliver the solutions to support it,” says the CIO.

One key area of focus for Doran is the parcels business. She says while it is no secret that the number of letters is declining, the rate of growth in parcels is increasing fast as people embrace online shopping. In its most recent set of results, Royal Mail reported that parcels represented 48% of revenue.

Within this area of the business, the company is about to begin a major IT project to replace key bespoke platform, Parcelforce Advance. According to Doran, her team is looking at an alternative that would leverage systems currently used at mail processing centres, supported by the Oracle Transportation Management product suite. This will be rolled out over the next 18 months.

Another important project is looking at increasing efficiency through “intelligent barcodes”, which would allow Royal Mail to automate the tracking of the volumes going through its mail centres. Doran’s team is talking to suppliers about possible products to use for this.

Last month, the deployment of an SAP human resources (HR) system was completed, and for the first time, employees at the postal service are being paid from a single system, which also gives staff the ability to claim expenses, apply for courses and request annual leave. That is a first step towards employee self-service, with the intention being to add more functionality to the platform.

Doran is also pushing for the completion of the roll-out of handheld devices to frontline staff. Royal Mail has one of the biggest handheld computer deployments in Europe, with 55,000 devices. According to Doran, it is expected that by the end of next year the postal service will have reached a target of 80,000 devices and there will be a periodical refresh programme.

“If you consider the pace of development in the mobile world, by the time you finish the roll-out, you have to start refreshing, so everything remains current. So we have put together a rolling programme to refresh a proportion of the estate yearly in a sustainable fashion from now till forever, because that’s how we do business now,” she says.

Doran is also concerned about the state of the infrastructure underpinning the web operations at Royal Mail, given the issues faced over Christmas 2011. To avoid a repeat of the problems, the CIO says her team is doing “a lot of work” to deal with the huge volumes of traffic expected during the festive season.

Some of that effort is already paying off. On the busiest day of the 2012 Olympic Games, the Monday following "Super Saturday", traffic going through the online shop – where customers could buy limited-edition stamps featuring Olympic gold medallists – was 2,500% over normal volumes, and things ran smoothly.

“We were pretty excited as there was a huge buzz across Royal Mail, people talking about it all the time, it was every business dream – the team are very buoyed up and proud of what we have achieved as a business,” says Doran.

On the busiest day of the 2012 Olympic Games, traffic going through the Royal Mail online shop was 2,500% above normal volumes, and things ran smoothly

Growing the IT services team

In the next few weeks, Doran will launch a recruitment programme to recruit 100 people across all areas of IT service delivery over the coming six to nine months. To that end, functions and roles were defined, job descriptions written and a plan of how to engage with recruitment firms was drawn up.

“We need to deal with the market in a clever way, because I don’t want to get the same CV from 10 different agencies. We had to design the recruitment process carefully so we can actually find the people we need,” she says.

IT staff will be recruited in London, Chesterfield and Milton Keynes at first. There is also a possibility that more staff will be needed at sites along the M4 corridor.

“I am very excited about the recruitment process as it feels like a key plank of what I want to do, and after all that have we have done to get to this point, things are starting to happen,” says the CIO.

Doran admits that the mood in the IT team was low by the time she started, but things are starting to look up.

“As I came in, I saw the morale was pretty low as there had been a gap [in leadership]. I think people missed somebody there to set direction,” she says.

“However, in our last staff survey, which was released about six weeks ago, our employee engagement results in technology had jumped from being pretty near the bottom to being in the middle. I think it is a pretty nice result, as they filled out that result after about seven to eight months of me being here,” she adds.

“People here are very committed and hard working. They are extremely loyal to Royal Mail, and are very keen to do a good job,” says Doran.

As part of the process of defining the strategy, Doran has drawn up the design of the IT organisation and looked at the people she has on the team, as well as their skills, to ascertain what other skills need to be hired.

“But I have no intention of starting a redundancy programme: I am growing the team. And as far as people in Royal Mail and outside are concerned, this is the land of opportunity if you are a technology person over the coming years. There are immense opportunities to do great stuff and feel really good about what you will achieve,” Doran says.

“And if there are people who don’t cut the mustard, as in all companies, we have a performance management regime and there is no plan to sack anybody. Every job will be advertised internally and externally, so if people want to apply for a different job, why wouldn’t I give people opportunities?” she adds.

“One of the things I am also hoping for is to get applications of people in Royal Mail who are not in technology at the moment. I believe you should hire for attitude and train for skills.”

Royal Mail is the land of opportunity if you are a technology person

Catherine Doran, CIO, Royal Mail

Focus on relationships

Royal Mail has a variety of IT contracts, the biggest with outsourcing firm CSC. This started as a 10-year contract in 2003 with an option to extend, which is what Doran chose to do.

“We extended the contract, as I wanted to understand it, get my arms around what I had and what I want to do before going to market. We extended it for a bit, but yes, I will be going to market in due course,” she says.

The CIO has established formal reviews and is building relationships with key suppliers, so the postal service “can take a longer view on things, rather than being transactional”.

“That has been interesting, as the supplier community has been very helpful,” she says.

But Doran’s major challenge is to improve relationships internally. And so far, the task has proved to be successful.

“Something that you often get in business is reluctance to embrace change. But what I found here as we talked about different ways of dealing with things, from hard technology to resource management, is that people are very excited and volunteering to be part of how we shape things,” she says.

According to Doran, one of her main leadership priorities is getting the team into the mindset of a multi-year effort. She recalls her experience at BT pre-privatisation, the positive effect those changes had on the business, and says that no-one would have predicted it.

“Royal Mail is on a similar journey. It has done several things to change and will continue to grow. I will have to continue to work really hard to ensure that we don’t all get tired,” she says.

“When I was at Network Rail running the transformation programme, we had to renew it on a yearly basis so that people wouldn’t say they were bored. I will need to do something similar here.”

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