RailCorp on track with IT

The rail system in NSW is a high profile operation. The network is constantly in the headlines -- and rarely for a positive reason.

The rail system in NSW is a high profile operation. The network is constantly in the headlines -- and rarely for a positive reason. However, could the state's railways finally be headed in the right direction, two and a half years after the government combined the old State Rail Authority with the greater metropolitan functions of Rail Infrastructure Corporation (RIC) to create RailCorp? One senior executive determined to steer the right course is chief information officer Vicki Coleman.

Coleman is head-down implementing a far-reaching ICT Strategic Plan approved by the board and chief executive in February 2005. She says the plan "recognised that the IT legacy from the precursor organisations ... did not position the organisation well to enable and underpin RailCorp's business objectives.

"The strategy proposed a four-year plan across four strategic areas, to establish the RailCorp ICT Group and transform the ICT environment to one that is integrated, standardised, reliable and cost-effective."

Eighteen months in, Coleman and her team are making significant headway in implementing the new direction: An ICT subcommittee has been established to focus the board's oversight and involvement, boosting governance; A new sourcing strategy and centralisation of ICT responsibilities under a single ICT Group has assisted consolidation; creation of a Project Management Office and rollout of a Project Management methodology has strengthened process and practice; A Computer Transformation Program, including development of a standard operating environment, has helped standardise the technical infrastructure and improvements are being made to business ICT programs such as timetable management, workforce planning and customer information.

"A key early achievement in the team in the last area has been the culmination of upgrading and merging the two precursor organisations' ERP systems to a single current version," Coleman says.

"This two-year project culminated in December 2005 on-time, on-budget and with minimal disruption.

"Often you read about these types of large undertakings in the 'failed projects' column."

However, Coleman does not underestimate the task she still faces to bring the ICT environment up to scratch. Tender documentation prepared to obtain an enterprise content management (ECM) system lists an environment characterised by information that is hard to locate and often deficient when found; stretched-thin ICT support and siloed information management projects with often competing goals. "A RailCorp strategic objective is to move away from discrete, divisional-based ICT projects to an enterprise approach," the CIO notes, adding that ECM will give the organisation "the infrastructure and complete set of services to appropriately manage information".

With the ECM the key to managing unstructured information such as documents and engineering drawings, business intelligence has been the focus of plans to manage structured data. A recently-completed review has yielded a strategy whereby RailCorp will consolidate elements of the business intelligence environments inherited from State Rail and the RIC. According to Coleman, this will "provide a solid base to deliver future business-driven business intelligence improvement initiatives".

Coleman also lauds RailCorp's creation of the new ICT Group, which includes many staff recruited from the precursor organisations, as well as new capabilities. While the process was not easy, RailCorp endeavoured to minimise its impact on those staff not selected to make the transition. "There have been no forced redundancies and RailCorp is assisting staff who did not gain a position but wished to remain in the rail or ICT industries," Coleman says.

The group, she says, will develop the standards, processes and frameworks that will ensure the rail system's information assets are exploited to the hilt. "In this regard, RailCorp is currently developing a policy and standards framework that will support both the ECM and BI technology programs.

"This will see the technology rollout supported by the 'softer' tools needed to support the technology adoption -- an all-too-often forgotten component," she says.

Coleman is also knee deep in implementing far-reaching changes to the way RailCorp procures IT goods and services. Internal capabilities are, she says, being supplemented by preferred supplier panels which focus on either a technology area such as integration or a discipline such as project management. Response from the market to tenders to establish the panels has been such that Coleman and her management team are now wading through responses from more than 50 vendors. "We are systematically assessing the larger-than-expected volume of tender responses," she says, adding that to keep the process moving, the panels will be established progressively.

Perhaps the most closely-watched aspect of RailCorp's IT transformation is the possible outsourcing of those components regarded as "non-core" and "commodity offerings" in the marketplace. Coleman acknowledges that formal proposals have been sought from prospective partners and "are currently being assessed with respect to the value of considering this direction further". RailCorp is understood to have narrowed down potential partners to two -- IBM and Fujitsu -- and is assessing what they have to offer.

Lessons learned
Coleman has adopted the same approach to each of her roles -- "listen, look, learn and then assess, plan and most importantly action". However, she recognises that the challenges and opportunities facing each organisation are not nearly as generic. "I believe my role is to lead the creation of the vision and the definition of the blueprint for its delivery so that my team can deliver to the plan," she told ZDNet Australia. "It is important that all of these are communicated widely so that the goals are understood and shared and the people that wish to, have the opportunity to contribute." If there is one key lesson Coleman has learned, she says, it is the importance of securing buy-in and support from the chief executive officer, executive team and board. "I find this fosters an environment where top management can be given an active understanding of the importance and role that ICT has to play in the success of the organisation.

"I have been very fortunate at RailCorp that this support and involvement is very present and very strong."