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IT Director Pooja Bagga on leading digital transformation across Royal Mail operations

From Augmented Reality applications to parcel sorting automation...

Royal Mail – a British institution that employs over 140,000 people who help deliver 13 billion letters and 1.3 billion parcels to 31 million addresses every year – is going through a sweeping transformation, as letter volumes remain in structural decline and parcel volumes soar; an evolution that accelerated during the Covid-19 crisis.

The shift has demanded substantial changes in operational technology: continued decline in UK letter volumes, for example, is driving the reduction of automated letter sorting machines, with some machines removed or decommissioned during 2019-2020. As ecommerce continues to prove a boom economy, the company is meanwhile working to automate and digitalise how it handles growing parcel volumes. As the latest Royal Mail annual report notes, “the percentage of parcels sorted by machine [reached] 33% [at the end of 2020]. The company wants to increase this to 80% and add two new dedicated parcel hubs by 2023-24.

The shift has put growing demands on the Royal Mail’s IT team to support the transformation. As Pooja Bagga, IT Director, Royal Mail Operations, puts it in an interview with The Stack: “We’re moving from being a letters company that also delivers parcels, to a parcels company that also delivers letters. From a tech perspective, this means we need to enable process change along with digitising our business. We need [even better] pipeline and supply chain visibility; we need to support and deliver major projects like the commissioning of the two new parcel hubs containing fully automated parcel sortation machinery, giving our workforce the right digital tools to increase efficiency, to enabling more data-driven decision making across our entire network.

“We need to enhance our IoT technology to manage thousands of PDA devices, our Containers (Yorks), our Vehicles and have a connected network: that's a massive piece of work on its own; making sure we have enabled an integrated, seamless RMG network by connecting people, processes and tools.”

(Royal Mail has access to over 1.4 billion data points daily and making use of that data to improve efficiency is also a big focus. Bagga says the company taps into a range of cloud tools to support that, noting “this is something we want to use... to give our customers and recipients better, personalised service.”

“My career has been an interesting journey…”

Bagga, unusually for the hands-on IT role, started her career with an economics degree and MBA in sales and marketing. She’s gone on to head up complex change management programmes at TfL (as head of ERP strategy and change) and British Airways (Programme and Portfolio manager, Operations strategy).

As she tells The Stack: “I fell into project management to some extent.

"Then the logical side of project management and delivery really excited me. I started delivering complex tech-related projects, because I enjoyed seeing the tech-enablement and resulting value-add for business. I was then invited to... deliver IT programmes and projects providing leadership for the technical experts. It has been a great learning experience to delve into the realms of real tangible technologies and enhancing my knowledge every day. I really enjoy the change and transformation that can be driven by technology”

Pooja Bagga’s team of 80 – 120 IT specialists is always looking to assess the potential for new transformational technologies, she says: “Lots of companies still have that IT-as-supplier mentality. I've always tried to break down those silos and work collaboratively with our business colleagues delivering optimum and relevant results. From complex large transformational projects and programmes to establishing digital product teams, I have been successful in delivering this change by collaborating and agreeing shared outcomes between business and IT."

Pooja Bagga: We do hackathons and refreshers on things like Agile

She adds: "To keep teams engaged and motivated, there are regular cross functional sessions, lunch-and-learns and webinars on new technologies; from cutting edge innovations, to just refreshers on Agile. I very strongly believe that you can train anyone, but somehow almost everyone falls back to the old way of working unless the changes are made a part of the culture and day to day interactions.

“If you drip feed information in small manageable iterations it tends to stay and becomes an integral part of everyone’s thinking. We do hackathons, we have very structured ways in which we engage with our partners and we have moderated sessions to help people get familiar with new technology.

"Ultimately, we must be very thorough with tech deployments, because of our scale, it adds a layer of complexity. If you get one thing wrong, you get thousands of people being impacted.”

That hasn’t stopped Royal Mail innovating. Last year it rolled out a UK industry-first Augmented Reality parcel sizer, for example, that enables customers to work out the right postage. Other challenges are more prosaic: handwritten signing-on sheets remain the norm for most of the company’s UK employees, with it now moving to digital signing in processes and electronic resource planning to create a connected workforce across UK sites.

As the company’s BAME executive sponsor, and currently the only woman sitting around the CIO’s table, Pooja Bagga is keen to help nurture diverse talent at Royal Mail. She notes: “Championing the BAME mentoring programme I am keen to see talent come through the various management layers of the company.

"With sponsorship from our RMG Executive Board, we have requested all our suppliers sign up to the Race at Work Charter. We’re totally focussed on improving diversity and being representative of the society we live in.

"Before the pandemic, I was signed up in my local schools, doing career fairs, and trying to attract more girls into STEM -- emphasising that I didn't study Computer Science, but here I am in the IT industry, because there's so much value you can add with latest innovations encouraging new ways of working.

She adds: "There are not many examples that I have seen personally, where people have moved into the IT industry with a business change background, or other routes like that; I would like to see more diversity coming through in the tech sector. Lastly, I would say to anyone wanting to make the jump or join tech, all you need is a logical and enquiring mind and a desire to learn and grow every day.”