How Cisco Uses Social Media

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 07-13-2009

Since she donned the CIO cap at Cisco Systems two-and-a-half years ago, Rebecca Jacoby has overseen the implementation of the following platforms: a dynamic company directory, à la Facebook, that allows employees to collaborate and locate subject-matter experts; a video wiki, à la YouTube, that lets workers post searchable video and audio messages; a company- wide wiki, à la Wikipedia, that supports a vast glossary of company-related knowledge; another wiki that captures business-related ideas; and a portal that explains how best to deploy all the aforementioned technologies.

Some would consider these social media or Enterprise 2.0 projects. Jacoby, a 14-year Cisco veteran, is more likely to characterize them as business process improvement projects, supported by some new collaboration tools.

For Jacoby, who spent most of her time at Cisco in supply chain management, the tools are beside the point. Her desire to execute a strategy using a new generation of collaborative tools is driven by an underlying imperative to make better use of what she already has. "If I can bring resources to gather information faster and more effectively, I have a competitive advantage," Jacoby explains.

If there's a secret to building effective tools that people actually want to use, it can be chalked up to one of those good old soft skills: listening. Jacoby's group considered hiring consultants or training employees as they started their internal collaboration efforts but decided instead to tap a pre-existing knowledge base. "We knew there were people in the work force that knew a lot about this stuff," says Jacoby. "We tried to establish a method for directed participation."

That method is a Web portal known as the Communications Center of Excellence, which started life as a receptacle for all ideas and observations related to social media. Today it's used as an interactive guide for building and deploying collaborative tools. The site includes best practices content, as well as worksheets and drills to help people determine the type of information- sharing technology--wiki, blog, discussion forum, video, etc.--that would best be applied to a given business process and within a given departmental culture.

Cisco's vice president for communications and collaborations, Sheila Jordan, manages an executive board that works with departments to implement relevant tools tailored to each function and process. In the case of the sales team, Jacoby says her group wanted to improve the way it worked both with customers and as a team, while adding value to the business process.

For instance, the technical sales team, which services a relatively complex selection of Cisco routers, comprises a handful of technicians who are often in the field working with clients and are in high demand. In the past, it sometimes took hours or days--depending on the situation--to track down a qualified technician, and the sales staff members used their informal networks to see who was able to handle a ticket.

Today, thanks to a mashup of mapping technology and a directory of identified experts, the sales team has near-instant access to the right--and available--specialist. Jacoby says those staffers have increased their interactions with clients by 45 percent since the technology was put in place and have increased productivity by 10 percent by formalizing the informal network.

Naturally, there were cultural challenges involved in embarking upon this "crowd-sourced" social media journey. For example, Jacoby says the open technology--with all of its unwritten rules and exposure to personal information--was "a little bit scary" for IT workers. "We forget the learning curves of technologies," she says, by which she means things like the awkward, all-capital-letter e-mails that people composed when e-mail etiquette was still emerging.

"You learn your way through it," Jacoby says. "It's not comfortable to go through that cultural change, but it's unavoidable. You just roll with it."