On our latest Foresight & Friends podcast episode, we were joined by Fiona Murray, Canadian National Railway’s (CN) VP of Public & Government Affairs. With 24,000 employees in Canada and the United States and $13.8 billion in revenue from 2020, CN is the leading North American transportation and logistics company.
Initially starting out as a librarian, Fiona has held various sales and marketing positions throughout the organization and is now responsible for CN’s government and media affairs as well as corporate communications. We discuss her career development from librarian to senior executive and her optimistic view on information services and its impact in the corporate world. Listen to the full conversation here or continue below for a summary.
Librarian with an entrepreneurial spirit
There was no thunderbolt realization that Fiona wanted to become a librarian. By chance, she took a shortcut through the library science building at McGill University and stumbled upon job board postings. Seeing how she qualified for the openings and had a genuine interest in libraries and technology, she decided to pursue her masters at McGill’s Library and Information Studies Program.
Fiona soon realized how library school worked to her advantage with learning about technology and the internet. She has seen the library evolve with sharing information, networking library systems, and passing information over telecommunications technology. It was increasingly important for people to do research and have information at their fingertips. The concept fascinated her — specifically competitive intelligence and how to turn data into useful, competitive information.
Equipped with her research and cutting-edge computer skills, Fiona joined CN right out of university as a librarian. She found herself working with the CEO and senior executives to help them connect the information dots. She viewed her work as a service — helping people find information, filtering out the noise, and then linking the end results to their projects or what they were trying to achieve.
Though a librarian by trade, Fiona quickly realized that dipping outside of her training and learning more about the business side at CN opened up more opportunities. She transitioned from the library into procurement, sales and marketing and then into public affairs. Fiona credits the combination of her library and business skills as the ticket to the different roles she has held across the company.
She offers this advice to individuals currently enrolled in library and information training programs:
“Don’t limit yourself to just the traditional world. Understand the value that you bring. Understand the immense vision that you have in terms of connecting the dots for people. That’s the one thing I’ve learned at CN. As you move around and as you pick up information along the way, being able to connect everything that you’ve learned and communicate that effectively is something that I really take back to my library roots. It can take you anywhere. It’s either a stepping stone into a different part of business or stays in the information side and really adds the value that you know you can bring.”
The connection between the railroad and people
CN has kept up with change throughout the years and is continuing to enable trade and the North American economy. It is presently involved in a take-over bid for Kansas City Southern. However, their operations are something people know little about. As Fiona puts it, “I think people take railroads probably for granted. A little bit like electricity; you flip on the switch. It always works. Railroads are just there.” This is an opportunity for CN to explain the importance of the rail connection to things people encounter everyday.
There are several items around us that have had some kind of interaction with the railway. Fiona points out “the furniture you’re sitting at, the computer that’s in front of you, the wood that went into making your house. We’ve moved it all.” A lot of jobs and communities rely on CN to connect North America to global trade and all the players in the supply chain.
Evolution of the railroad industry
The railway industry tends to be insular due to its small number of competitors in North America. But Fiona sees the industry transforming with an increased role from information services shaping strategy. “Information makes the world go round and railroads cannot continue to work in isolation of the rest of the economy, the rest of global interactions”, she says. Companies must understand the trends and pressures outside their organization to decide next steps.
CN proactively and strategically gathers and consumes information to position themselves for the future. Looking at data points along the supply chain or the disruptions in global trade patterns help them form strategies on how to move forward. “That’s something that information service providers and professionals can help us with”, Fiona states.
It is often a struggle for corporations to have a lot of information, yet no clear plan of action. There is no lack of information, only knowledge on how to find valuable information and turn it into actionable insights. Working with researchers and analysts to develop plans based on insights from outside and inside the company is well-worth the effort. Not everyone has the time and skills to find information and package it in a meaningful way.
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