CIO interview: Network Rail plans digital factory to accelerate modernisation

The operator will enhance its multimillion-pound IT strategy with a sharper focus on areas including mobile, data and cultural change for digital transformation

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The £1bn IT plan to modernise UK railways

Network Rail is planning to revamp its approach to digital technology as a key objective of a £969m IT plan supporting the continued modernisation of the UK’s railway system.

To lead the technology strategy underpinning Control Period 6 (CP6), a five-year scheme aimed at improving efficiency, trust and quality of services for users, passengers and freight, the operator hired Aidan Hancock in May as chief information officer (CIO).

A direct report to route services director (and former CIO) Susan Cooklin, Hancock joined the company from oil and gas giant BP, where he was the IT chief for the company’s Middle East business. His experience will help the organisation achieve its goals of making £370m worth of savings that need to be delivered by CP6 as well as enhancing services to all stakeholders that use its infrastructure.

“In my previous roles, [organisations] wanted to do something around digital but were not quite sure what. I had that dual approach of getting people excited about it but also calming them down a bit,” the executive tells Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.

“Here at Network Rail, we are at the heart of UK plc and doing tangible things for millions of people every day – we’ve got huge potential and very solid foundations for engaging with passengers better, drawing on huge pools of data that we can exploit and do more with,” the CIO adds.

One of the key goals of CP6 is making Network Rail a better company to do business with. According to Hancock, from an IT perspective this will mean delivering new products and services faster: “That process tends to be a bit slower than we would like.”

Introducing the digital factory

Network Rail is shifting to a digital factory approach, which will emphasise collaborative ways of working and trying out new innovations, with possibilities including the use of machine learning for timetables and relaying operational information on events, such as delays, to passengers in real time.

But not all projects lend themselves to the new approach. “We’re not just flipping a coin and doing everything agile – that would be crazy,” he says. “We’ll be agile where it’s useful, and we will do things more traditionally where that is the most appropriate way – you wouldn’t build a new datacentre in an agile fashion.”

“We’re not just flipping a coin and doing everything agile – that would be crazy. We’ll be agile where it’s useful, and we will do things more traditionally where that is the most appropriate way”

Aidan Hancock, Network Rail

Introducing a hybrid cloud datacentre model is one of the IT projects on Hancock’s list for the coming months, as is the refresh of 45,000 user devices across the rail operator, with Windows 10, Office 365 and Microsoft collaboration tools.

Accelerating and modernising Network Rail’s mobile business solutions function, which previous IT chief Cooklin set up between 2012 and 2013 and has since created around 70 enterprise apps, is on the list of priorities for the digital factory.

“We’ve got a mature mobile product function. But we have been doing it for so long that we are getting to the point of having to manage what will rapidly become a legacy mobile app state, which is quite unusual – very few companies are at that stage,” Hancock points out.

“The team works in a pretty modern way, but they are a little bit constrained. And as the portfolio of developed apps built up, there’s a cost to create a body of maintenance work and management,” he notes.

Driving cultural change

Another key aspect of the digital factory approach is that the hub will bring people from other departments to work on specific products and services for a set period of time. According to Hancock, the new format of service delivery “will look and feel different”, but underlying mechanisms to ensure work is carried out efficiently are covered.

“We have done a lot of work around governance, and procurement and [projects] will still be compliant and appropriate, but you won’t have to spend months procuring things, looking for the data and trying to get access to it,” the CIO says.

Hancock hopes the new approach to be introduced by the factory will reverberate across the business by the staff who will spend time working on the digital initiatives. “Once their piece of work is finished after a few weeks or a couple of months, they will go back and take those new behaviours to the wider Network Rail,” he says.

“There’s a big cultural change aspect. It’s not a big-bang change, because they rarely work, in my experience. Our approach to digital transformation and behavioural change is probably a good way of doing it.”

The idea is to set up the digital factory as a generator of projects that will stick, according to the CIO. “I don’t want to build something which just does pilots – I’ve seen this a fair few times in my career. It’s easy to do a pilot, but much harder to scale it into production and do something of value with it,” Hancock points out.

“The factory is not about running pilots, but exploring problems. It’s about failing fast where necessary, but also running all the way with things where there is value,” he notes.

“Suppliers will play a huge part in that [strategy]. We can’t do this by ourselves.”

Transforming supplier relationships

The factory will be composed by developers, data scientists, designers, user experience (UX) specialists and business domain experts. According to Hancock, some of those will be internal staff and many of them will come from partners and suppliers. Key suppliers to Network Rail include Microsoft, Apple, CSC and Oracle.

“We’re really keen to start having far better conversations and engagement with SMEs – something we have not been good at in the past. That also applies to IT”

Susan Cooklin, Network Rail

More engagement with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is an area Network Rail will be giving more attention as part of the introduction of the digital factory approach. According to Cooklin – whose directorate supplies services including IT, contract management and procurement, payroll, training, supply chain operations and finance to Network Rail’s regional businesses – the company has been driving a transformation within procurement to ensure smaller suppliers can do business with the rail operator.

“We’re really keen to start having far better conversations and engagement with SMEs – something we have not been good at in the past. That also applies to IT,” says Cooklin.

“That [new approach] lends itself nicely to the digital factory piece, so if somebody just wants to spend, say, £50,000 with us on doing some kind of innovation pilot, the fact we are changing some of the rules and limits with SMEs will make us a lot easier to do business with.”

Revamping the data function

Another goal of the strategy introduced by Hancock also involves setting up a new data science function. “We are looking into how well we are set up to exploit our data, how well we understand it and whether we have a sense of data science,” he says.

According to the CIO, the idea is to address issues around quality of data, evolution of technologies supporting the data setup and initiatives such as Intelligent Infrastructure, a project the company started over a decade ago around the use of asset data for areas such as predictive maintenance, which in turn has an impact on the service delivered to passengers.

“I’m bringing a sense of a real kind of disciplined, professional approach to data. It’s the classic move from giving us some reporting through to decision support and beyond,” Hancock notes.

“I can recall when BP started to roll out [connected] sensors before internet of things even became a term. You start quite basically with some fundamental things you can do, but that’s incremental and you keep on building on it.”

As Network Rail evolves its new approach to digital, it intends to grow its population of in-house staff. “We’ve got the complexity and the scale: we are a very attractive employer with a fascinating challenge, as well as the ability to plan for the long term,” he says, referring to the company’s five-year funding cycles.

“But this isn’t about attracting everybody from the market,” he says, hinting to a future reskilling programme within the organisation. 

“Data science can be a lot of things. It can mean someone who’s just good at Excel, for example,” Hancock notes. “We’ve got pockets of people all over Network Rail already doing data science, we just haven’t really called them that. It’s a way of enabling staff to develop themselves as well, as they are already here.”

In a year’s time, Hancock hopes Network Rail will have seen the first meaningful products from its digital factory. The CIO also hopes the rail operator’s data science capability will be “properly set up”.

“We are working on [these milestones] and none of them are far away,” he says. “We are also transforming career paths and development for our people and making their jobs more enjoyable, impactful and more directly related to our customers and passengers.”

His boss, Susan Cooklin, is confident about the CIO’s ability to deliver on that promise.

“[Hancock] is investing into the IT team so they are more innovative, business-driven and thinking about passengers and customers when building systems,” she says. “I think in a year’s time, we could be in a very interesting place.”

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