Australia Post is nearing the finish line for what was once billed as the ‘largest telecommunications transformation in the country’, and is now setting its sights on smart operations powered by connected devices.
In this week’s episode of the iTnews podcast, Australia Post’s head of technology for network and infrastructure engineering Shane Hazim provides an in-depth view of the four streams of work in the telecommunications transformation, and where the enterprise intends to go next.
Australia Post’s environment is enormous, spanning up to 5000 sites, 80,000 connected endpoints and a workforce of more than 60,000.
It decided back in mid-2019 to transform its telecommunications foundations with best-of-breed technologies “to enable the business to be ‘always on’,” Hazim said.
“The aim was to support business growth for new products and services and really deliver resilient technology that would steadfast Australia Post in the modern digital age.”
The telecommunications transformation is split into four streams, some better known than others.
The network technology stream has received the most attention, upgrading connectivity into all Australia Post sites nationwide and connecting them with a software-defined network.
“This is about the ‘always on’ central management and modern networks, which is putting us on a pathway to drive speed-to-market and launch products and services faster,” Hazim said.
Work in this stream is now 93 percent complete.
The organisation created several standard patterns for different types of sites to ensure that it could complete the transformation works at speed and at scale.
“We've got up to seven large sites left to do from a physical local network transition, from a hardware perspective and [installing] wi-fi technologies, as well as up to 200 smaller sites to go,” Hazim said.
Australia Post partnered with Comscentre (now part of Orro Group) on this stream.
“It's truly been an amazing collaborationbetween our partner Comscentre and the [internal] delivery team, as well as the business to push to really try and get it all done within time,” Hazim said.
“I've got to take my hat off to the Group as a whole because there have been some quite significantly hard-hitting sites in Australia Post when you think about the size of some of our delivery centres, and to see that going into its last final mile is quite a proud moment.”
The results in this space are already strong, with up to 80 percent of network incidents now identified proactively, and large-scale network incidents cut by over 30 percent.
Communications and collaboration
A second major effort went into communications and collaboration systems, in partnership with Cisco and Telstra.
Unsurprisingly, given the events of the past year-and-a-half, this work is complete and has been in business-as-usual mode for almost a year.
“This was about central communications platforms [WebEx] and centralising audiovisual technologies from our facilities partners into IT to standardise how we have collaboration spaces or workspace technology groups within our business and in our facilities,” Hazim said.
“The situation of Covid really forced us to accelerate and push that platform out to the business to get them to work remotely as quickly as possible.
“It also gave us the opportunity to refresh [physical] rooms as quickly as possible while no one was there [in the offices], so it was a bit opportunistic, but there were positives and negatives in that circumstance.”
Australia Post has now defined a standard pattern and ways to implement it “to reduce complexity” in any future site builds.
Collaboration across the Group is up by 40 percent, and this is leading to some novel coordination efforts, including to intercept money or assets that customers have unwittingly mailed to scammers.
“It's quite impressive as to how the team corrals together to actually accomplish that with some of these technologies,” Hazim said.
Engagement scores across the group are also up 10 percent, which is also attributed to work performed in this stream.
Contact centre transformation
The third stream was around Australia Post’s contact centre operations.
This involved standing up central “workforce management and optimisation platforms, an omnichannel routing platform and smart IVR technology.”
The intention was to enable Australia Post’s contact centre partners and business units “to have a view across the workforce.”
It was also intended to improve the customer experience, through better call handling and enablement of agents with access to knowledge articles and other systems.
Australia Post partnered with LivePerson and Genesys (for its Engage platform) on this stream of work.
“The contact centre stream is in its last mile, so that is closing out,” Hazim said.
“We're looking to finalise our transition from legacy telephony platforms in that space to a digital telephony platform.
“It's got some minor transition elements there to close out, so that stream will be finished over the next month or two.”
Mobility and endpoint management
The last stream was mobility and endpoint management, which had a goal to improve cellular communications across the Group.
Hazim said that Australia Post really just wanted to “move to a worry free platform in regards to how we leverage and consume services”, not having to be as worried - for example - about excess data usage fees.
With longer-term ambitions in the internet of things (IoT) space, Australia Post also wanted to prepare connectivity for applications such as machine-to-machine (M2M) and connected devices.
In addition, Australia Post wanted to centralise the management of its device fleet - whether llaptops, smartphones or tablets - “to enable us to get one step closer to Zero Trust as an environment and really steadfast how we actually manage our platforms or our devices in a consistent way based off user/job archetypes,” Hazim explained.
This stream involved Telstra on the mobility side and VMware on the endpoint management side, through its Workspace ONE platform.
Work in this stream “is almost closing out from a project perspective,” Hazim said.
“We've done up to 11,000 endpoints from a device aspect,” he said.
“Although it's closing out, it's now in a business-as-usual mechanism to actually continue that rollout as devices are coming from the factory or as we go through our [device] lifecycle management processes, as well as in a normal operational fashion.”
One of the benefits of this stream is that it has allowed Australia Post to more quickly stand up functional ‘pop up’ sites to handle large parcel volumes, in particular.
“It enabled an acceleration of pace by up to 50 percent to stand up new sites,” Hazim said.
“There's been some memorable moments over Covid, where we've had phone calls on a Saturday saying three sites are going to be stood up for storing additional packages.
“Watching the Group corral around it and be able to deliver it now with these technologies, which previously would have taken us over 12 weeks, in significantly under five was quite mesmerising to actually see.”
Given the multi-year nature of the transformation, and the challenges brought about by Covid that have been present for much of it, Hazim noted there had been some small changes in project timelines and delivery as priorities changed.
“From a perspective of the last few years, we've had to be realistic as a business and adapt to the environment that's around us,” he said.
“We’ve had to change to make sure that we get the best outcome for the business right now without overshooting for where we thought we'd want to be in certain streams.”
Hazim said the contact centre stream is a case in point.
Like others with large contact centre operations, Australia Post has needed to create an environment where it can onboard people quickly and train them to meet a rise in call volumes.
The organisation has been mindful not to overload people with too much change at one time, and in doing so has pushed some work originally scoped in the business case into the next financial year instead, where they will still be pursued but outside of this specific transformation effort.
“I think the important part is to make sure that when you do deliver technologies, that you're not creating a poor customer experience or user experience for the services that you're delivering,” Hazim said.
“If we're not ready to embrace a technology in the timeline that was set out by the program due to the environment that is around us, then it would be a smarter move to just push it out slightly into a different delivery mechanism to ensure that our customers get the right experience from our business.”
A connected future
Earlier this year, Australia Post unveiled ambitions to create a digital twin of its delivery network, essentially a working virtual replica that would enable it to model changes without causing any business impact.
Given that context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Australia Post also has some internet of things (IoT) ambitions that, given the late-stage status of the telecommunications transformation, it now has more time to explore.
The intention is that connected devices will be used to improve the experience of frontline workers at delivery centres or the customer experience when interacting with Australia Post.
Hazim said there are some existing connected devices already on Australia Post’s network that may be leveraged.
Internal talks with Australia Post’s technology groups are also underway to understand the full potential of IoT as well as map out some paths to reach it.
“Over the horizon is quite exciting at Australia Post,” Hazim said.
“We’re always investing in simplifying technology, and really striving to push the boundaries to drive a different type of experience for our customers.”