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No End to the Innovation Race

Feature Article | April 20, 2015 by Judith Magyar

The CIO of Danish State Railways reveals the secret to modernization.

“There is no finish line in the innovation race,” said Bill McDermott at the recent Innovation Forum in Copenhagen. Martin Börjesson, the CIO of DSB, Scandinavia’s largest railway company, agrees.

“Innovation is not something exotic that requires brilliant minds,” says Börjesson. “It’s about finding simple solutions to a problem. It usually requires common sense and the ability to tweak something that already exists and adapt it to your specific needs.”

Innovation is everyone’s job

One of Börjesson’s key tasks at the moment is to swap the traditional reams of paperwork that conductors used to carry around in big, black briefcases to tablets and other mobile devices. Manual procedures are being replaced by online transactions, but connectivity is an issue.

“Let’s not forget that most railway companies in Europe are more than 100 years old. These companies have a large legacy and continuous cycles of growth and adaption. Over 30% of DSB’s 7500 employees have been with the company for over 30 years. The ratio of blue to white collar workers is high. Almost all of our people are on the road and seldom behind a desk. They are executing our business at the front end with the customers. Hundreds of employees are travelling all the time, yet they need to be connected in many ways. If connectivity is poor, that’s a problem,” says Börjesson.

Another task is getting feedback from the 500,000 customers who ride the rails every day.

“I don’t want to figure out what customers want. I want to hear from them directly!” he says. For example, instead of penalizing customers for forgetting to top up their Oyster cards, DSB now sends automatic updates to alert people that they are low on credit, thanks to feedback from users.

Ownership belongs to all employees

Börjesson wants his IT staff to think out of the box, so every quarter he runs an innovation workshop. The best idea is presented to management, demonstrating that IT is not just about technology but about business acumen and customer centricity. There is no lack of ideas. Last time, the team discussed ways to guide customers to the wagons that are least full when the train arrives, so that people are not milling around wondering which wagon to board. Quick boarding ensures quick departures, and that helps increase punctuality, a key performance indicator for any railway.

Börjesson doesn’t believe there is a huge shift in ownership from IT to the lines of business. He sees himself as a peer to the C-level decision makers and frequently discusses issues with the CFO and the CMO.

“My role is to connect technology to the business so the company runs more effectively. People shouldn’t be irritated by tools. We want to improve the quality of life for our employees, so they can be better at their jobs. That’s why I encourage employees to think about ways to improve their work. But not everyone thrives on change. Managing people reminds me of popcorn in the microwave. When the corn stops popping, you always have a few kernels that just didn’t pop.”

The Disruptors is a series of short stories of customer innovation from around the world.

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