Bombarded by challenges old and new, the railway is in a permanent state of evolution. Here, Rahul Harlalka explains how delivery partners can help an industry which impacts almost every community in Britain
I took my first train for five months the other day. What was a near daily habit was one of the first to fall by the wayside as the pandemic took its grip and so I was curious what might have changed since March.
An empty carriage at what would normally have been rush hour tells its own sad story but the fact that my train was forced to slow down due to high track temperatures was a strangely comforting reminder that the rail network will always face its own bespoke challenges – pandemic or no pandemic.
Tales of overcrowding, for example, are familiar complaints, as are the perennial inevitability of price rises every January. And then there is the recent tragic landslide in Scotland – a vivid reminder of the overwhelming importance of safety across the network.
It all adds up to a veritable melting pot of challenges large and small – and that’s even before rail leaders start grappling with the fall-out from the pandemic. No wonder organisations across the network often turn to delivery partners to help forge their path.
An industry in the spotlight
In the UK, passenger and freight services are provided by train companies which operate over infrastructure provided by Network Rail. With 4.8 million passengers carried every day before the pandemic, its importance to the country has long ensured that it is never far from the headlines.
The pressure on the network – both passengers cramming onto trains and trains themselves jostling for position on the tracks – is unrelenting. To its credit, Network Rail has recently embraced a new manifesto which prioritises passengers, an approach which is further evidence of the rail industry’s need to avoid standing still.
There will always be demands for new upgrades, better trains, more modern signalling and smarter stations. Juggling these priorities, however, is not for the faint of heart. In Network Rail’s case, its headquarters and regions may have differing priorities. For example, regional managers may prefer to keep local railways open for business as they are, rather than having to deliver ambitious cross-cutting change for longer-term improvement.
But that’s exactly where delivery partners come in.
Instructions to deliver
I’ve spent most of the past 18 years in roles advising organisations on programme delivery and business transformations. Here at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence, we often see clients needing help to augment and support their internal teams in delivering complex change across project management, business change and technical disciplines. There are a couple of ways to go about this.
Firstly, deploying individuals in specific roles focused on their outputs and deliverables which may mean operating in a silo. Now this isn’t great as the outputs may not deliver the full set of intended benefits or deliver them fast enough, which is why the change should be happening in the first place.
Another and I think better approach involves being on the same page as the client from day one, focusing on the benefits and the outcomes (and then outputs) needed for success. It’s not about just inserting staff to augment skills gaps, but actually trying to understand the strategic outcomes of the programme and deliver to it. Being clear together from the get-go on what good looks like – such as an agreed vision of the end state of the project – is essential and this is really where a delivery partner needs to be.
So, how do you get there?
At heart, success is under-pinned by three separate factors. Firstly, alignment of behaviours and culture between delivery partner and client organisation and its stakeholders. Understanding what’s important to the client, their stakeholders and how they work is critical.
Secondly, there needs to be regular and effective communications with meaningful content. Communications in a periodic way for the sake of it doesn’t always deliver impact. Asking your clients what they and their stakeholders want to know and making it digestible (we’re all busy, right?!) is good. This could be a podcast, TED-style talk, interview or blog – ie across multiple platforms.
And finally an effective delivery partner truly needs to understand their clients’ world and their stakeholders. On the railway, for example, this can be hugely diverse. Knowing which reform programmes have been tried in the past, whether they have succeeded or failed, and how people react to change due to their roles and priorities will help anticipate and manage delivery risk before the going gets tough.
Implementing these three factors won’t guarantee success. As my colleague, Mivy James has pointed out, change is never easy, but what they will do is leave delivery partners – in the rail industry or elsewhere – far better placed to do what they have actually been employed to do: deliver.
About the author
Rahul Harlalka is a Central Government Account Director, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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