BNSF Railway: Unified and Communicating

BNSF Railway: Unified and Communicating

By Peter High

Jo-ann Olsovsky, the vice president and CIO of BNSF Railway, shares her experiences with implementing unified communications, the benefits BNSF has gained, and the company’s immediate IT challenges. 

WHO: Jo-ann Olsovsky, VP and CIO of BNSF Railway
WHAT: Sharing her experiences about BNSF Railway’s approach to unified communications
WHERE: Fort Worth, Texas
WHY: To provide CIOs and other IT leaders with actionable advice and insights about how to implement unified communications.

Jo-ann Olsovsky knows a thing or two about telecommunications. Prior to becoming CIO of BNSF Railway in June 2008, she was the assistant vice president of telecommunications at BNSF, and previously, she was the director of enterprise network services and technology support services at Verizon Communications. Soon after joining BNSF, Olsovsky recognized that unified communications would be an important area to invest in as the workforce that she supported was increasingly mobile.

In this Q&A, Olsovsky tells CIO Insight contributor Peter High about the steps she has taken relative to unified communications, the value her company has derived, and her future plans.

CIO Insight: How did the idea to pursue unified communications become a strategic imperative for BNSF Railway?

There was a combination of factors that led us to pursue that strategy. First, our workforce is very mobile. We have 40,000 employees all over the United States, and many of them are not in traditional office settings or spend a significant portion of their work day on the go. As a result, we needed to tailor communications tools that fit their needs. 

Second, our voicemail system was no longer adequately supported. With our focus on being good stewards of the technology investments that we deploy, we jokingly say that “We will replace no asset before its time.” Well, our voicemail system had clearly reached its time. This added an additional reason to understand what the marketplace offered when it came to advanced communications solutions.

What features did you include as you pursued unified communications?

It began with the replacement of our voicemail system. We later implemented a few voice over IP installations. We also added click-to-call and click-to-video functionality in a few small areas. A broader rollout required a network upgrade that we are in the process of implementing. We added NetMeeting, desktop sharing and instant messaging for most employees. We had never used instant messaging at BNSF, so this was an opportunity to introduce it, and for those of us who had relied upon it in our prior experiences, we brought the others up to speed quickly, and usage spread contagiously. 

It was key for us that the solution we chose integrated with our other tools. For instance, since we chose Microsoft, our solution integrates with Exchange. If I am browsing SharePoint, and I view a document that I find interesting, I can identify the author in SharePoint, and if he is online, I can instant message him to see if he is available to chat, and have a NetMeeting with him right then and there to discuss it.  

BNSF Railway: Unified and Communicating

How did you plan and stage the rollout of unified communications?

We identified the opportunity in the second quarter of 2008. We spent a good portion of that quarter investigating solutions, and decided upon Microsoft. By the third quarter of 2008, we piloted the solution in Fort Worth, where we are headquartered, and a few select locations across the U.S. Since there were some pretty big changes that we were putting in place, we used the pilot as an opportunity to learn prior to the bigger launch.

That launch happened in the third quarter of 2009. Fifteen thousand users changed over to the new voicemail system, 14,000 of them in a single day. We leveraged the change management process designed during the pilot. We trained subject matter experts who were on call when issues arose, and we developed self-help programs including quick tip sheets. 

We are now in the process of upgrading to the newest version, Microsoft Lync, which will replace our current Microsoft Office Communications Server. This appears to be a pretty easy transition, and we are excited about the added functionality. In fact, since a lot of our PBXs [private branch exchanges] are aging, we will review this functionality as we consider our future voice strategy. 

Now that the initial unified communications strategy has been in place for a few years, what benefits has BNSF gained?

We have seen a 63 percent reduction in voicemail use since implementing our unified communications. Moreover, these voicemails are delivered via email. People can reply to them and forward them as emails. This has dramatically reduced our phone use. 

Also, as text messages become more popular, it has reduced phone use even more substantially. In the first quarter of 2012, eight million instant messages were sent on the BNSF network.

People are collaborating across locations to a much greater extent than they had in the past. We had 65,500 sessions so far this year where employees shared desktops to update documents, hold meetings, etc. We suspect this ability to collaborate seamlessly could reduce our need to get on planes in order to walk through presentations and collaborate together.  

The ability to work on presentations together in real-time and then saving the new version of that presentation on SharePoint has led to reduced instances where the same presentation is saved 10 times to 10 PCs. Version control is also a significant efficiency and productivity benefit. It is also important to note that unified communications are considered “casual conversation.” As such, we don’t have to save them as we do emails, for instance, leading to storage savings. 

BNSF has a lot of employees who have been with the company for many years.  Was there any push back that you dealt with in implementing these solutions?

BNSF Railway: Unified and Communicating

We focused on developing a communications plan around unified communications that stressed the value proposition. The subject matter experts who I mentioned before were also invaluable as we went through this journey. There were some people who voiced their displeasure, saying, “You’re messing with my voicemail!” Once they understood the changes and the many layers of options they now had, they were sold! A big hit was the voicemail sent to you via email functionality. People don’t “log in” to voicemail anymore. They simply play the audio attachment on their email to hear their voicemail messages and can forward or delete accordingly. 

You mentioned that a priority going forward is to continue to transition to Lync and to replace your aging PBXs. What else do you have planned?

We have been interested in the consumerization of technology, and like a lot of companies, we are identifying the application of various aspects of that trend to our business. Those include a “Bring Your Own Device” program and better integration of social media and technology. We are going to pilot [Salesforce.com’s] Chatter.

The mantra for us is to offer communications tools that enable people to be productive on their terms. That is the essence of the consumerization value proposition. The employees we are hiring don’t use email much in their personal lives. They are much more comfortable with texting and using social media for communications purposes. As a mother of young children this was not so surprising to me. What has been surprising was how many of our colleagues of longer tenure are also changing the way in which they communicate and collaborate. They have really embraced these collaboration tools. Our strategy now is much more a reflection of that change. That is ultimately why our people embraced these new tools when we implemented unified communications.  I can only say we’ve been thrilled with the results so far.  

About the Author

Peter High is president of Metis Strategy, a boutique IT-strategy consultancy based in Washington, DC. A contributor to CIO Insight, High is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the podcast, The Forum on World Class IT. He can be reached at peter.high@metisstrategy.com.

This article was originally published on 01-29-2013