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Microsoft's telephony software gains railroad ties

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway says it will use Redmond's unified communications software to try to attract the next generation of workers.


Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is hoping that Microsoft's telephony software can help it replace its aging phone system. But it also hopes the software might help it replace another asset that's getting older: its workforce.

About 40 percent of the company's workers will become eligible for retirement in the next few years. BNSF is hoping that by adding tools like unified communications, it can help attract workers who have grown up with tools like instant messaging and video conferencing.

"We've got to attract and recruit that next generation of workers," said Gary Grissum, BNSF's assistant vice president of telecom. "That's the way they communicate. They expect that same type of communication in a business environment."

Just how much that helps recruitment remains to be seen.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway sees Microsoft's telephony software as a way to get younger workers to hop on the company train. BNSF

In any case, it's a nice win for Microsoft, which was up against competing products from Cisco and IBM that had also been tested by BNSF. For several years now, Microsoft has been trying to expand its corporate presence from the desktop to the phone. The company took its corporate instant messaging product and transformed it into one that can handle phone calls as well.

BNSF has been piloting Microsoft's software with about 700 workers in its tech unit since December. Next month, it plans to expand to 1,000 workers, including its top executives, with plans to go to 15,000 workers by year's end.

Microsoft almost didn't get the railway deal. "We looked really hard at Cisco," Grissum said. "We are a Cisco shop from a network infrastructure side."

Cisco is still ahead when it comes to telephony features, Grissum said, but, in the end, it was the PC software experience that sealed the deal for Microsoft.

"Microsoft owns the desktop," Grissum said.

Heading into the project, Grissum imagined that the toughest part would be convincing the company's workers--many of whom have been at the company for 20, 30, or even 40 years--to embrace the technology.

"What we found was just the opposite," he said. "The biggest challenge has been managing demand."

Although the early pilot was supposed to focus on just those in the technology services unit, about 100 people outside that group have managed to get in on the trial.

BNSF isn't throwing away its desktop phones. For now, it will add Microsoft's PC-based "soft phones" as an option in addition to using standard handsets.

"At this point Microsoft doesn't have al the features we need," he said. "We're not replacing phones right now...As Microsoft moves to 'Wave 14' (the next version of Office), we'll look hard at the Microsoft solution."

Down the road, the company is also thinking about trying to expand into intra-company social networking using SharePoint. "We just have to get our head around how to incorporate that," Grissum said. "As soon as we get the first wave of unified communications out of the way we are going to take a hard look at that and what we do."

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