Shared services are proving their worth at NZ Post, which has adopted a "one company" focus for information systems, where the business drives the solution and technology is the enabler.
It was a natural evolution, begun two-and-a-half years ago, from a decentralised approach to the delivery of business needs to a common, more centralised approach, says IS general manager Ivor Masters.
"Since December, we've shown marked improvements in efficiency, with reduced costs in technology-focused solutions," he says.
It was, he says, a concept identified by Post CEO Elmar Toime, to whom Masters reports directly — a far cry from the previous business-unit decentralised model.
Masters has under him more than 120 services staff, and a further 40 technology staff; technology is no longer separated as a unique entity. Rather, its role is to enable business service delivery.
There are still some IT people within the business units, focused on the unique requirements of those units but also on the interface to the company.
Masters, who took over as general manager IS last year, believes New Zealand is "way ahead" of Australia in such concepts.
A 10-year veteran with NZ Post, he'd originally planned to spend only a short time there as an initial introduction to New Zealand. UK-born, he had been educated in South Africa and subsequently worked for several oil companies in an accounting capacity.
After moving to multinational company Bell and Howell, where he was involved in computerising its manufacturing environment in the late 1980s, he decided to move overseas for a different lifestyle.
"We literally put Australia, Canada and New Zealand in a hat, and drew out New Zealand," he says.
His first job at NZ Post was as an accounting system development manager, just after Post became a state-owned enterprise.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to be involved with change. I was in that job just over one year when finance pulled me into more of an operational finance role." A year later he went into marketing, where he stayed for three years.
Masters moved back into financial planning, consolidating business plans on behalf of the whole company; then an opportunity arose to become IT general mana-ger.
"I felt it was an opportunity for a business person to be exposed to an environment to enable the delivery of the future. I view IT as an enabler to meet business needs."
In December last year he was given the additional responsibility for shared financial services — the initial stage of common shared services for the business.
"We've had to build an organisational structure to support that delivery, and also to communicate to the rest of the organisation.
"The business units have willingly bought in, although they have a choice."
Much of Post's IT is outsourced to Datacom, in which Post holds 25% equity. However, Masters says that where it hasn't been previously decided that Datacom should provide technology, Post will go to the open market for a solution.
"Our business groups decide on their supplier. They own the solutions; we implement, facilitate and guide."
Each business unit has its own budget and there is total cost recovery from them for services.
Post has around 9000 permanent full-time employees — there are 2500 desktops — with casuals and temporary staff boosting the number to 14,500. It is currently upgrading its networks to support more traffic.
"I believe the way in which businesses will communicate in the future will be across networks," Masters says. "More companies will expose their own systems to their customers.
"We will try through our networks to provide more information to our employees. Where that is not practical, solutions such as kiosks could evolve.
"Over time, we will maximise the intranet and provide tools for access."
Flexibility is the driving force for the future, he says.
"We don't know what the business needs are likely to be in the future. We won't put all our eggs in one basket.
"We need to be flexible to allow ease of change and speed to market to meet business opportunities.
"Because we are entering a new environment with technical change so rapid, it's clear business needs and opportunities will change as well."
Another important enabler for Post's new directions is its assured production environment, which is the backbone of a common infrastructure.
In March the hardware side was put in place, with the consolidation of Unix boxes. "We started at the high-end processing level so there were some quick wins."
At one point, Post had 11 different Sun chassis. By consolidating these, it now has a more resilient processing capacity, for which it is paying significantly less, and with lots of growth available in the system to accommodate peaks and troughs.
"Common means consistent, not necessarily the same.
"To achieve this, there had to be very clear service-level agreements. That's an ongoing process as the business changes."
It's planned to extend the methodology down into the network and up into servers, also accommodating disaster recovery.