How SBB migrated into the Cloud

Interview Thomas Sieber SBB

SBB and isolutions are working closely together on various digitization projects. We had the opportunity to interview Mr. Sieber and ask him a few questions about public administration and the cloud.

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Why did you decide to move to the cloud?

Back in 2015, we decided that, with Microsoft as our strategic partner, we wanted to obtain core functions of the ICT workplace from the cloud. This was also because we wanted to become independent of work location and work device. Essentially, there were four reasons why we started the revolution:

  • Window of opportunity due to the lifecycle of the OnPrem platforms
  • The maturity of Office 365
  • To enable improved and easy collaboration (location and device agnostic) to support the digital transformation of SBB
  • The opportunity to reduce operational costs

What do you have running at SBB in the Microsoft public cloud?

Apart from Skype, which we will replace in a next step, all collaboration functions currently come from the Microsoft Cloud. In particular, these are Mail, SharePoint and Teams. We also use the power tools to primarily map administrative and support processes.

As part of the Modern Client Management project, we are currently examining the use of Intune for the management of end devices that are currently still managed conventionally (SCCM) or, in the area of mobile devices, with MobileIron.

What is the biggest benefit of the public cloud?

Access to the company's data from any location and with any work device and the unlimited ability to communicate enables improved collaboration.

Thanks to Microsoft's innovation, the workplace is also constantly evolving. It allows us to constantly have a modern workplace without a large investment.

The cloud is also interesting from an economic point of view. It is scalable and we only pay for what we use. We were in Dublin at Microsoft's data center. The comprehensive security concept we saw there left me in no doubt that the move to the cloud would also increase security and stability.

What were the challenges of the cloud project?

Such a project can only succeed if the toolset, the skillset and, in particular, the mindset are available in the company, or at least if the breeding ground for them is already prepared. We felt confident about the toolset, but less so about the user skillset, and we hoped that the need for change had been recognized by SBB's digital agenda.

A collaboration platform like Office 365 is a social technology that brings relationships from the analog world into the digital world. These social aspects of technology need to be considered in the change process. The success of social technology adoption is highly dependent on the maturity of the organization. Transparency and collaboration were not unconditionally present in the corporate culture. Many processes adhered to hierarchy; we were not a «networked company».

With our project, we are massively shaking up the status quo, which was characterized by strong transactional behavior. Fostering digital fitness, the ability to learn, and the will to learn was a major challenge, especially because the framework conditions for self-learning, such as the time required, were not in place.

On the technology side, we had unexpected challenge in the performance and stability of the platform. This did not exactly encourage the employees willingness to adapt. Technical inadequacies in our infrastructure constantly came to the surface, which only became visible with our project. The main focal point was the network. Issues that we didn't actually have on our radar as potential problem areas began to accumulate in our program.

Due to the technical inadequacies, management was increasingly negative about Office 365, which was like adding fuel to the fire for employees who wanted to cement the status quo. The big sponsor, who also walked through the valley of tears with us without reservation, did not exist. During the «crisis», issues that had not been disputed before were also shaken up, such as the abandonment of classroom training. There were also open doubts about the level of competence of the program staff.

Technology alone is not enough. What additional measures have you taken to ensure that the new technologies are accepted?

The introduction of a collaboration solution is indeed not a normal IT project. We didn't do it as an end in itself, but to support the maximum productivity of the users with a modern, very powerful workplace. To do this, we had to make sure that the users could master the new tools and that the user experience would be positive.

We invested around 40% of the program budget in the «people and organization» theme. We relied on Workplace Champions, a user board, blended learning offerings, team consultations, nationwide roadshows, appearances at organizational events such as the cadre conference, etc.

We quickly realized that we were in a sandwich with our product, especially in terms of adaptation. We were building on basic digital competencies, but these were then available in very different ways. On the other hand, we were also part of the working world of the future, where topics such as organizational structures of the future, etc. were at stake.

How great was the acceptance at the beginning of the implementation? Did you notice an increase in the use of the tools?

Because we moved systems to the cloud that were used on a daily basis, such as mail and SharePoint, usage was high right from the start. It was more difficult with the tools that required an adaptation of the work technology, such as Teams or Yammer. Here, the employees' urge to look for workarounds in order to avoid contact with the tools for as long as possible was already very great. Enthusiasm for the self-learning options was also limited, as it was customary at SBB to have classroom training for new tools.

In addition, the digital fitness of the users was very differentiated. There was a noticeable sense of being overtaxed, which was then reflected in negative behavior.

Did COVID ultimately bring about your digital transformation?

Yes, I would say so. Change always happens with joy or from shock. We did notice a certain inertia in the organization for change.

For example, if I take the usage numbers of teams at hand, we find that it was the crisis that brought about the penetration. Up until COVID-19, we had an average of about 5'000 active meeting participants each month. In April 2020, that number was close to 20'000. Even more impressive is the number of first time users in March and April, which was over 5,000. We counted 2.5 million chat messages in April compared to around 800'000 previously.

How did the implemented cloud project benefit you during the current (COVID) situation?

The employees were able to move to the home office from one day to the next, so to speak, and continue their work as usual and maintain contact with SBB. I can't even imagine what it would have been like if we hadn't yet had the Workplace in the cloud.

Accordingly, it was also attested that our modern workplace made such a radical step into the home office possible in the first place.

This also gave us the freedom to react flexibly to the new circumstances. Within a short period of time, we published a variety of help and best practices for working from home and introduced a telephone «home office consultation» in cooperation with the service desk.

Do you think that the current situation with home office, remote meetings, etc. will also have lasting changes on other ways of working at SBB?

The Corona crisis has enabled flexibility across the board in the workplace out of necessity. I do believe that some of this new work culture is changing permanently at SBB. Home office could now become part of the work culture, even in places where it was previously considered impossible or not allowed due to outdated management patterns.

Many employees had to look for new approaches to get their work done. This increased ability to adapt to new technologies, among other things, will certainly take root in part, making SBB more resilient and adaptive. I am convinced that all employees will emerge from the crisis digitally fitter.

The crisis has also shown one thing. The digital workplace, the revolution we had, was right and important! It was able to wake up many employees who had previously been skeptical and had resisted the new technologies. Confidence in our infrastructure has been strengthened. We hope that this trust will take root and that openness to new things will increase.

Thank you very much for the interesting interview.