A strong IT for a strong track – Interview with Christa Koenen, CIO DB-Konzern

With 7.4 million passengers per day, Deutsche Bahn is the backbone of public transport. DB’s social importance is currently growing, particularly against the background of climate change. The company wants to strengthen the railways, because rail travel is active climate protection. For this to succeed, the ability to innovate and the strength to implement are of central importance. Christa Koenen, CIO DB Group and CEO DB Systel, will describe how these capabilities can be established in a large corporation such as Deutsche Bahn in a lecture at solutions.hamburg on 11 September. In an interview with the mgm editorial staff she gave some insights in advance.

mgm: Ms. Koenen, the digital transformation does not stop at such an established company as Deutsche Bahn. What specific challenges will DB face in the course of digital change?

Christa Koenen: Of course, we see challenges in the digital transformation, but above all opportunities. Germany needs a strong rail. We are firmly convinced of this – not least because rail is the most environmentally friendly means of transport. On the one hand, we want to double the number of long-haul passengers to 260 million. On the other hand, we want to increase network capacity in the infrastructure by 30 percent so that we can both carry more passengers and increasingly shift freight traffic from road to rail. This would be a major contribution to the environment, the economy and Europe. After all, we drive across borders. We are therefore looking at which technologies we can use to achieve these goals. But we also ask ourselves how we can bring digitization to our workforce and our customers in order to get the best out of it.

mgm: What role do DB Systel and IT in general play in overcoming these challenges?

Christa Koenen: All in all, IT plays a much greater role than in the past. In the past, IT was primarily perceived as a cost factor. But if you look at the challenges facing the railways and what we have set out to do – run more trains, make trains much more reliable, improve quality, communicate with customers in real time – it only works with IT. Only IT can really automate and simplify processes. Only with IT can data and information be processed and used correctly in a foresighted and real-time manner, so that the rail customer ultimately has an advantage. IT is therefore no longer just a cost factor, but a business factor. IT is the driver behind the digitalization and transformation of the entire Deutsche Bahn. DB Systel is the IT service provider and a kind of digital partner for Deutsche Bahn’s business units. We drive innovation. In addition, we operate the basic IT and, together with the business, consider how we can modernize it and integrate and drive everything forward.

mgm: What technological transformations has DB already initiated in order to position itself more dynamically and flexibly for the future?

Christa Koenen: One of the largest and most exciting technological transformations we are currently working on as Deutsche Bahn is the “Digital Rail Germany” project, in which we are digitizing the infrastructure. By digitizing the rail infrastructure alone, we can increase capacity by 20 percent without having to build even one meter of new track. That would be a real impact. Other fields that we will look at include data management, data integration and AI on the basis of so-called data lakes – or an entire data lake chain – that result from this. This is necessary in all directions and is also significant in customer communication. Within the company there are very many use cases for this. We also regularly question how well we promote innovation on a small scale and how we create the ideal environment for teams that have ideas to try out. Therefore, we offer the opportunity to experiment in different laboratories in the field of tension between business and technology. Very exciting topics have already emerged.

mgm: Digitalization is not only characterized by a technological transformation, but also by a change in organizational structures and working methods. How do you take this fact into account – both at DB Systel and throughout the Group?

Christa Koenen: You’re absolutely right about that. In my opinion, this is even the more important part of digitization. In the traditional structures, we are simply not flexible and fast enough to really drive digitization forward. For the past four years, we at DB Systel have been on the way to transforming a strictly Taylor hierarchical organisation into a self-organised one. This is a process that works both “bottom up” and “top down” and in which we have already come quite far. Of our 4,400 employees, over 3,000 are on the move in teams. These teams consist of seven plus/minus two employees and each have a product owner for the what and an agility master for the how. Since this way about 500 to 600 teams are created, we cannot implement the hierarchy completely flat, but need for the control a certain clustering in units, which are organized according to technical-thematic points of view. It is an enormously exciting process of self-organization to give a lot of responsibility to the teams that do the work and are actually the experts. In recent years, this has released a great deal of energy, which in turn has flowed into IT-initiated innovations and improvements for the business. I would never say, however, that this fits all areas of the Group or every company. You can look at many aspects and think about how to transfer them. But I don’t think, for example, that the highly regulated operation of the rail network should take over on a one-to-one basis what we do here in IT. But if you take a look at the basic concepts of agility and self-organization and compare them with the basic concepts of lean management, you will discover many similarities. Deutsche Bahn of course also relies on Lean Management, so that at this point there is an opportunity to help drive the transformation within the Group as a whole.

mgm: On 11 September you will give a presentation on your experiences at solutions.hamburg. Which core messages would you like to convey to the visitors?

Christa Koenen: In my lecture “A strong IT for a strong track” I would like to discuss how the role of IT is changing in the context of digitization. What does business need from IT to help shape the digitalization of Deutsche Bahn? How do you have to organize yourself in order to introduce the necessary technologies, find the use cases and create added value for the customer? A second big aspect will be: How must we work as IT and as business? Which processes and working methods have to change? How must the organisation change in order to actually reach its goal of achieving more climate protection with more railways and shaping the mobility of the future?

mgm: And what do you personally hope for from solutions.hamburg 2019?

Christa Koenen: I believe that a conference that focuses on IT and still focuses on people is what we need today. Because in the end, the people with whom we work and for whom we make IT, are the key to success. I am looking forward to reporting in a relaxed atmosphere what we are doing at Deutsche Bahn, how multi-faceted IT is at DB and the opportunities and challenges we face. So I hope to be able to surprise one or the other visitor a bit.

First published on www.innovation-implemented.com