CIO Q&A – Susan Cooklin, Network Rail

Network Rail is the owner and operator of the UK’s railway infrastructure. It is responsible for maintaining the track, setting train timetables and planning future use of the rail network. The company’s 700-strong information management department is led by CIO Susan Cooklin, one of the country’s most prominent and celebrated IT executives. 

 
Last year, she was shortlisted for MIT’s CIO Innovation Leadership award, in recognition of the scale and complexity of the IT estate that she manages. Before joining Network Rail in 2009, Cooklin worked in operations for Barclays, where, she says, she successfully cut operating costs by £200 million. That helps to explain why she was recently given the added responsibility of Network Rail’s shared services organisation.
 
In September 2012, Network Rail issued a tender for an IT services and solutions integration framework. In it, the company revealed that the “Network Rail Information Management function is changing its operating model for engaging and supporting Network Rail business change programmes”.
 
To find out the strategy behind this change, Information Age recently caught up with Susan Cooklin. She also discussed the challenges of planning five years at a time, the company’s recent relocation to Milton Keynes and what she sees as the key to successful business change.
 
Last year, Network Rail put out a procurement tender that said it was changing the IT department’s operating model. What’s the story behind that?
 
Two and a half years ago, not long after I was appointed CIO, I benchmarked our IT function in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. We found there were things that we were good at, such as operations and services, but also that we weren’t as effective on projects as we could be.
 
We outsource development to third parties, so what we do on projects is manage the third party. We make sure everything gets tested and can be transferred into our live operations without screwing anything up.
 
But I found that we had started to do the work that the third party was supposed to be doing. Instead of assuring the design, we were starting to do the design ourselves, either because people didn’t trust the supplier or because they had their own view on the project. That meant we were taking back the risk. Instead of the risk being with the third party, it started transferring back to us, which was not where I would like us to be.
 
I have a very strong team who I can rely on to deal with the day-to-day running of the IT function, so I can focus on the more strategic problems"
Susan Cooklin
Network Rail 
 
 
 
So I introduced an efficiency and effectiveness programme. Now we’re getting better at defining our requirements, we are assuring third parties’ designs and making sure we’ve got the right contract in place – everything we should have been doing in the first place. 
 
Another part of improving our effectiveness, though, was that I felt we had too many suppliers. We had rationalised our supplier list down quite a bit, but I still felt that we had too many. 
 
We’re now in the middle of a tendering process for our project work. Our aim is to get the supplier list down to no more than five, which I think will help improve our success rate at delivering projects.
 
Coming from the banking sector, how have you adjusted to Network Rail’s five-year planning cycle?
 
I’d never experienced a five-year planning process before, and I found it quite amazing that we could do that, because it’s very difficult to plan IT projects.
 
Firstly, you don’t know what technologies are going to be around. But also, there’s the challenge of getting the business to be very specific about what they want. 
 
What I’ve learnt is that things change. One of the big technology changes has been the growth of smartphones and tablets. We seized that opportunity very early on. Within six months of the iPad coming out, we deployed an application called BoardBooks for the board. And more recently we’ve rolled out iPhones to 8,000 maintenance staff. That kind of thing just wouldn’t have been on the radar at the start of the last Control Period.  
 
Another major change is that the organisation changed the way it operated with its customers through a process called ‘devolution’. Effectively, we’ve decentralised the organisation and created a managing director for each of our ten routes, who are aligned to the train operating companies. 
 
That was something that was not envisaged at the beginning of Control Period 4. 
 
How have you adapted to that change?
 
Fortunately, we have local IT staff across the country. A while ago, somebody tried to persuade me to cut back on those IT staff, but I said no. That turned out to be a good call, because those people are very close to what’s going on out on the routes. 
 
So what we did was put in a business partner that owns two of the routes to talk to managing directors about their business at a more strategic level. 
 
We’ve managed to fund the things we needed to do. The regulator is quite good at recognising that things change. 
 
We’re looking at a different approach in CP5, where we can become a bit more structured in the way that we do that. 
 
For example, we want to grow freight by 30%. If we did manage to do that, we know that the existing systems couldn’t cope with that growth, so we need to think now about how we’re going to change those systems. Our plan is to invite the regulator in to look at where we are at different points. 
 
What drove the recent relocation of the IT department from London to Milton Keynes?
 
The move to Milton Keynes was part of a property strategy by the company. What we built at Milton Keynes is a 3,000-people building comprising many central functions, IT being just one of them. IT is quite a big bit of that – about 500 out of the 3,000.
 
It has allowed us to attract some pretty good local talent. We’ve picked up people who didn’t want to commute to Canary Wharf any more, and we picked up some people from banks and retailers.
 
The move has helped hugely in terms of alignment with the business. It used to be that there were 400 of us [IT staff] sitting in a building on Euston Road, but now we’ve got a lot more co-location [of business and IT]. It’s a completely different way of working. 
 
You recently took on responsibility for shared services. How did that happen?
 
If we go back 15 months or so, the group finance director, me and a few others thought it would be a really good idea to create something called ‘Group Shared Services’. We’ve got to reduce costs across the company by 18% by the end of Control Period 5, so if we set it up well, we thought this could be a good vehicle for delivering some of that efficiency.
 
So we took some bits out of those functions and pulled them together, and we said, ‘How is that going to work?’ Frankly, they just carried on working in the same way that they worked before, because they were still operating in silos.
 
At the time, I had too much to do to take charge of it myself – we had the Olympics, the move to Milton Keynes and a major upgrade to our e-Business suite, which is one of the largest in Europe. 
 
But I was asked to take it on, I think, because I’d spent seven years in operations at Barclays, and I know how businesses work. So I now look after things like accounts payable, accounts receivable and payroll services as well as IT. 
 
The knack is taking people with you. You’re trying to change the culture, and taking the teams with you in an organisation like this is quite challenging. That will be what moves us into the right place.
 
What advice would you give to other CIOs who want to extend their responsibilities beyond IT?
 
They should have a very strong IT team so that the bread and butter stuff is just handled and you can focus on the strategic questions. You don’t want to be spending your time analysing some service problem that happened in the last 24 hours. I have a very strong team who I can rely on to deal with the day-to-day running of the IT function, so I can focus on the more strategic problems. 
 
You’ve got to find top-tier people, and make the place attractive to come and work at. You can’t do it on your own.

 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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