Infusing the Enterprise with Innovation:
A conversation with Christa Koenen, CIO of Deutsche Bahn AG and CEO of DB Systel
When Christa Koenen took over as CIO of Deutsche Bahn in 2018 in addition to her role as CEO of its internal IT business DB Systel, it was unclear to the business why anything might need to change. But what began as a question of whether the company needed to run its own data centers evolved into a plan for a massive cloud migration and retooling of the organization’s culture and processes. AWS Enterprise Strategist Miriam McLemore sat down with Koenen to talk about the journey.
The start of something new
Miriam McLemore: How did this transformation begin?
Christa Koenen: When I started at DB Systel, IT wasn’t a main focus for Deutsche Bahn. The company had always done well and had been stable. Subsequently, it started looking more towards digitization. So inside Systel, we quickly realized that our behaving like an IT service provider wasn’t enough anymore. We began our transformation to digital integrator and innovator. It’s been a complete transformation—technologically and culturally. We’ve adopted agile methods for everything we do.
Driving change top-down and bottom-up
Miriam McLemore: How did you get your people to embrace the change?
Christa Koenen: Communicate, communicate, communicate. Everybody says that, but especially in a time of uncertainty, we have to stand in front of our people and say, “We don’t know what the company is going to look like when we’re done, but if you want to be part of the change, you have a role, and you’re welcome to work with us on this.” Even more importantly, be honest about what works and what doesn’t. In the past, it wasn’t acceptable to say this isn’t working, and let’s take a few steps back to try a different direction.
Being able to influence how the culture and company develop and which technologies are implemented creates a sense of ownership among employees.”
With a select team of people, we defined the eight areas we thought we needed to change and put two people in charge of overseeing the transformation. For example, we had one person from sales and another from operations addressing what “culture and leadership” might look like for the company. From that, they created either internal or customer-facing goals to track each quarter. Then they found people who were enthusiastic about the topic to help change the company.
Approaching this as “our transformation” versus the management team’s transformation was important. Being able to influence how the culture and company develop and what technologies are being implemented creates a sense of ownership among employees.
Overcoming disruption with agility
Miriam McLemore: What advantages have you seen from this transformation?
Christa Koenen: Everything we set in motion—from changing the way we organize to increased cloud adoption—has been critical to adapting quickly to this incredible disruption that we are going through. For example, at the beginning of the corona pandemic, we were able to scale our VPN infrastructure from 12,000 to 60,000 concurrent users within a couple of weeks and have everyone work from a home office within a day or two. Productivity is at least as high as before; in some cases, we’ve had to ask people to stop working in the evenings.
Letting innovation bloom
Miriam McLemore: Has your transformation helped spur innovation?
Christa Koenen: Absolutely. Previously, the company was organized into silos and functioned in a classical, tayloristic way. So it was quite an effort to bring together people with different types of knowledge to innovate. Now we have, for example, our Sky Deck, where we work with our customers to look at business challenges from a new perspective. Rather than just throwing technology at a problem, they can come together to understand what the issue is. Sometimes, the solution is a lower-tech approach.
We will hand over our data centers at the end of the year—a year earlier than anticipated. We’ve been going through several changes in parallel. We’re not changing the way we work because it’s cool to work in a self-organized way or it’s hip to use agile tools. We’re doing it because we need to work in this way with cloud-based technologies so we can adapt more quickly. After decades of focusing on managing our data centers, we’ve entered a new era in which we can focus on innovation instead.
Christa’s 5 Keys to Successful Enterprise Transformation
- Involve the organization in setting the direction
- Overcommunicate during times of great change and act as a role model for embracing change
- Migrate to a network of self-organizing teams
- Give employees time, tools and space to solve problems
- Encourage risk-taking; allow trying and learning
We’re not changing the way we work because it’s cool to work in a self-organized way or it’s hip to use agile tools. We’re doing it because we’re convinced that we need to work in this way to be effective with new cloud-based technologies so we can adapt faster."
About our guests
CIO, Deutsche Bahn AG and CEO, DB Systel
After completing her studies in Economics in Mainz and Freiburg, Christa Koenen worked in various companies, including as a strategy consultant, and earned her MBA at IESE in Barcelona. Christa joined Deutsche Bahn in 2004, initially in Strategic Development at the group level, and later as Head of Controlling and Head of Business Development in the Services business unit. In 2011, she took over as CFO of DB Kommunikationstechnik and in May 2014, joined DB Systel as Managing Director and CFO. Since 2015, Christa has been CEO of DB Systel, and in 2018, additionally took on the role of CIO of DB Group.
Enterprise Strategist, Amazon Web Services
Before joining Amazon, Miriam was the Chief Information Officer, Corporate and Consumer Technologies and a leader in the Global Information Technology Division of The Coca-Cola Company. In this role, she provided global leadership across the enterprise on all technology matters in support of global marketing, consumer/commercial leadership, product R&D, human resources, legal, sustainability, public affairs; and strategic security.
Andrea Lachnik, Agility Master, and Rene Schneider, Product Owner and Cloud Expert, sat down with AWS Digital Innovation Leader, Thomas Blood, to share their experience leading business and technology transformation at Deutsche Bahn Systel.