Cisco CIO: Building a Collaboration Network

For too long, cios viewed collaboration technologies as an experiment, a “nice to have” tool to appease certain factions of their staff. With growing pressures to cut costs and boost productivity, though, more CIOs are turning to collaboration to drive their business forward.

Cisco Systems CIO Rebecca Jacoby spearheaded the implementation of numerous collaborative technologies at the tech giant. She spoke recently with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson about how collaboration can boost performance–and the perception of the CIO’s role. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: Do you see any opportunities for IT in the recession?

Rebecca Jacoby: There’s an opportunity to accelerate. You’d be hard-pressed to find any thinking CIOs who haven’t seen certain business opportunities that are obvious productivity opportunities for their business or even their own organization. In some ways, the current macroeconomic environment gives you some air cover to create a burning platform to accelerate through some of the areas where people were hesitant to accept change.

How did you approach your collaboration implementation?

Jacoby: We’re investing in collaboration–the full set of Web 2.0 technologies and communications technologies, as well as video communications. We’re working toward an enterprise-scale implementation of these kinds of technologies in a way that’s bringing efficiencies to almost every business process that we have, but more importantly allowing us to get the most out of our global talent–in a way that people like, not just squeezing them harder.

What led you to collaboration?

Jacoby: We broached the topic of collaboration at our October 2007 CIO conference, and maybe only one other company said it was thinking about it strategically. Most of the others weren’t using any Web 2.0 tool–even IM–pervasively. At the October 2008 CIO conference, it was a completely different conversation. There still are some skeptics, but basically everyone’s trying something.

Two and a half years ago, when we began talking about how we communicate as a company, most of my organization was skeptical about going whole-hog into [collaboration]. I told them we didn’t have a choice: We’re going there–either IT is going with it, or it’s not. We put ourselves in a leadership position, or we make ourselves obsolete.

So our goal wasn’t to reluctantly go there; it was to figure out how to make it high value for the business, how to make it available, and how to get out of our traditional box of how we communicate and implement technology.

Were any employees using collaborative tools at the time?

Jacoby: There was already broad use of wikis in the organization at the time. Instead of saying we were going to become wiki experts and then figure out what to use, we asked our community what they were using. The first role of IT was to take what people were using and help it scale.

Our strategy has been to create an enterprise-scale architecture that allows us to manage the risks associated with our responsibility to the enterprise, but also to create a relatively flexible approach so that individual employees can come into the collaboration space and work the way they work.

We’ve built that architecture at our company by going after specific business process value and putting it together so it scales.

Did you face any challenges in selling the business on collaboration?

Jacoby: With any technology, you have your leading-edge users. There’s a feeling that there are some real transitions in the way people work, so the question for us is whether it has business value.

You can get started by finding a particular business process that’s interested and use that technology to transform the process; then you can use that example as a use case. When it’s completely abstract or completely leading edge, the business isn’t really ready to invest. But once you have a concrete example where you’ve gotten business value, people become very imaginative.

So you have to invite a structure where people come to the table and say they know how to get value for their business process from that, and then you create some joint accountability for it. We did that broadly in our business because people were interested.

The fun part is that these technologies could take us to the next productivity boom, through growth. If you use them effectively, at enterprise scale, and across an ecosystem (like we did with the Internet in the mid-’90s), they offer the chance to drive new business models.

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