Michael Foster on Freight Railroad Tech

Future of Supply Chain Podcast, Episode 8

This week on The Future of Supply Chain, we sit down with Michael Foster, CTO and CIO of Canadian National Railway. Michael bring decades of global supply chain experience across ocean, air, and trucking. When the CN opportunity came along, Michael came to realize he had a great opportunity to expand his experience and scope of work as a technologist with a leading player in the railroad industry.

Although under-publicized, the railroad industry is large and complex. Railroads were the driver of economy growth for most major developed nations during their formative years. Their relevance is often forgotten these days despite their size, reach, and ongoing relevance. Apart from the seven major Class 1 operators (apart from Amtrak), there are about 600–700 railroads still operating in North America today. There are about $250B worth of goods transported on Canadian National trains, alone.

IoT and data-driven decision making is prevalent in railroads. Michael discusses how trains themselves are “mobile data centers” with the locomotive itself being a highly advanced vehicle. CN specifically has deployed sensors at-scale to uphold safety, transparency of operations, asset utilization, and more. While IoT is a ways-to-a-mean to gather data, there is a massive opportunity for management of data assets and associated decision making.

Building a culture of innovation. Michael uses three strategy to drive effective innovation in large businesses. 1) get technologists close to business partners, don’t sit independently and try to innovate. 2) create a better culture around advancing technical experts. It allows technical talent to focus on problem solving and building vs managing people. 3) small teams of technology and business people are best suited to investigate problems and propose solutions. Michael also notes the difference between disruption and incremental innovation — at scale, the latter can really have an impact on an organization like CN.