Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc. and other affiliates in North America began the deployment of Microsoft Office 365-dedicated cloud services as their exclusive environment in June 2012. In Japan and other overseas affiliates, Toyota will leverage a hybrid model, with on-premises editions of Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft Lync and Windows Server. This recent deployment represents an expansion of Toyota’s collaboration with Microsoft technologies. In April 2011, Toyota and Microsoft partnered to provide next-generation telematics services using the Windows Azure cloud platform.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Zack Hicks, Chief Information Officer at Toyota North America (pictured below), about the company’s deployment of Office 365.

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Q: What trends are you currently watching in the technology landscape, and why are they important to Toyota?

A: We’re very much focused on mobility and cloud technology. We take a broader view as an automobile company because we see the car as the original mobile device and customers today expect more from their cars – from connecting personal devices to interacting with location based services.

Outside of the vehicle, we want to provide our employees with the right tools to interact with customers in a more personal and fun way. By putting our collaboration tools into the cloud, it allows us to move from a business of managing equipment and data centers to managing a service. On that front, our sales and marketing team have already completed the migration, and the manufacturing company will move to the cloud later this year onto Office 365.

We’ve also made business intelligence a huge focus, and we’re already realizing significant value from our data gathering by consolidating information from our North American company, our vehicles, our social media and other structured and unstructured data sources.

All these shifts in the use of technology are providing unprecedented insight into our company, our products and our customers in ways that didn’t exist in recent history. We’re leading the way to turn this data into actionable information for those who need it, when they need it.

Q: When and why did you first start thinking about this implementation for Toyota North America?

A: A couple of years ago, we were doing our annual business planning and looking at what was on our plates in the year ahead. One of the things we needed to address was our aging e-mail and collaboration platform. I asked my team to start looking at more cloud solutions so we could get out of managing the servers and the upgrades. This way, we could continue our focus on customer service and the type of innovation we can provide to our customers. Last March is when we actually started making the transition, and it’s been very smooth. I can tell you that there are already huge thanks and support coming from our end users – all the Toyota employees – saying that they love the new tools.

Q: Before adopting this solution, what challenges were your employees facing in terms of communications and collaboration?

A: At Toyota North America, we actually have several companies that reflect how we grew organically in the region. Oftentimes, all these companies had disparate and separate technology from one another, including e-mail and collaboration tools. So, we decided to do this as a single effort to begin breaking down those company silos and making it much easier for our employees to collaborate with each other and communicate in ways they expect. Many already have these types of capabilities at home, like chatting over video, IM or finding out when somebody’s available. Simply put, we needed to provide that same type of functionality in the workplace in order to unify thousands of employees who likely don’t know each other.

With the new tools, they can find people they may not personally know but who may have expertise in a certain subject and find them in ways that ultimately help them do their jobs better and more efficiently.

Q: How did you approach making the decision to deploy Office 365 for your company’s communications and collaboration infrastructure?

A: My team led an extensive analysis of the different types of options that were out there, including if we were going to own and manage a service or if we were going to look at it as a service provided as an ASP or a cloud-based service. And then there were also variations of hybrid solutions, so we had a lot to look at!

But when we got down to it, Microsoft’s offering was the most mature and had the capabilities we needed. We also knew that even by doing this as a North American entity, we were ultimately working toward a global solution. We wanted to partner with somebody who has the size and scale to successfully pull that off, while guaranteeing the level of service we need to ensure Toyota quality.

Q: What anecdotes can you tell about this deployment? Did you get user feedback on the technology? Did anything surprise you?

A: The most used application in any company is probably e-mail. Making the decision to go from a solution to a service has its risks, but we have a great team here at Toyota and a great partner in Microsoft. The transition was much smoother than I anticipated and we had tremendous engagement from our business users and from users who wanted to partner with us on this transition.

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to all of the Lexus employees at their Town Hall and they applauded news of the transition. The easy adoption with no need for intensive employee training is, I’m sure, a big reason for all that applause!

Q: When did you begin deployment in North America? How many employees have been deployed so far in North America?

A: We began the North America deployment in March 2012 and have 14,000 employees currently using Office 365. We’ll have 17,000 more on the manufacturing side by early spring. And, we’ve got multiple other Toyota companies around the world reaching out to us looking for our assistance with this migration. For Toyota globally, it may take a couple of years for full impact given that some parts of the company have to upgrade their PCs or their infrastructure, Internet connections, bandwidth and so on. They also have to align it with their capital investment plans.

Q: What influence has Toyota North America’s decision had within the organization?

A: Soon after we made the decision, Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan announced they were going to position Office 365 as a global offering. Simultaneously, we’ve also been partnering with Toyota Europe and Toyota Australia to share our efforts and capabilities. We may allow some of our other Toyota regions to participate in the North America cloud offering as well.

Q: What does this IT decision mean from a capability perspective?

A: From a capability perspective, it allows our IT group to continue offering best-of-breed service that will always be up to date. It also frees up capacity and resources to focus on those types of things that make Toyota special, like innovation in our vehicles, innovating with our customers and having closer relationships with them overall.

Having the ability to make investments on the innovation stack as opposed to commodity level services like e-mail is what I believe drives Toyota as one of the premier automakers in the world.

Posted by Jeff Meisner
Editor, The Official Microsoft Blog