At Cisco, three business units joined forces to keep information flowing and strategic skills sharp in preparation for the upturn.
What happens when a high-flying, high-tech company suffers a comeuppance and has to work much smarter? At Cisco, three business units joined forces to keep information flowing and strategic skills sharp in preparation for the upturn. Their identities may surprise you.
After 44 consecutive quarters of earnings growth, Cisco Systems stumbled badly during the 2001 economic downturn that swept many high-techs off the map. Excess inventory had to be written off the books to the tune of US$2.2 billion. As the business world and Cisco's shareholders looked on in painful disbelief, the company's valuation fell by $430 billion and Cisco laid off more than 4000 employees in the first-ever check to 10 years of spectacular growth.
But after taking many steps that are common following a financial debacle, the company did something remarkably different from the norm: It didn't cut back on its commitment to employee learning. In fact, with the full participation of CEO John Chambers, e-learning became a major force for recovery, for forging strong ties with IT, and for demonstrating real business results.
"Our culture has been one of driving e-systems across the whole company even more aggressively during the industry slowdown than we would have during normal times," says Chambers.
It didn't hurt that the charismatic CEO and champion of All Things Internet was already an e-learning advocate. As Chambers is the first to admit, e-learning, fully loaded with rich media and locked into a companywide computer infrastructure, is a bandwidth hog, and that's good for Cisco. The more such learning that companies deploy, the more demand there will be for the converged voice, video, and data network products that Cisco sees as one of its next growth markets.
Cisco believes that the future of the Internet is represented by AVVID: Cisco's Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data--an architecture that supports convergence of voice, video, and data (telephone, television, and computer) networks into one common network. One example of that convergence is IP telephony, which allows users to avoid the tolls of the public telephone networks. It makes sense that Cisco would showcase what could be a major driver of this convergence: e-learning. In addition, Chambers believes strongly that the Internet and education are the two great equalizers in contemporary life and has long directed Cisco to support their use for the common good.
Getting its groove back
In the past 10 months, the delta force--made up of Chambers, the IT unit, and the Internet Learning Solutions Group--has taken full advantage of Cisco's superb networking capabilities to beam a steady stream of information and learning opportunities to staff and partners around the globe. Distinctions between information and learning have dissolved as the company focuses on providing whatever it takes to get its groove back.
Almost a year before the hard times began, the Internet Learning Solutions Group, led by VP Tom Kelly, had launched learning portals for two key groups: the 40 partner companies that sell Cisco products and services and the 4000 systems engineers who implement the products after the sale. That was the first consolidated e-learning at Cisco, and it beefed up the number of tools and technologies available for the spread of learning throughout the company
"We've continued to expand beyond the training space," says Kelly. "The thing that has changed the most is that the e-learning tools and technologies are the way John [as everyone calls Chambers] and the rest of the executives interact, communicate, and inform."
Within weeks of the company's slump, the Internet Learning Solutions Group and its IT partners were producing 400 videos a month, covering 45 live events each month over Cisco TV, and helping subject experts create more than 25,000 reusable learning objects. Kelly credits the economic downdraft--in the industry and at Cisco--with turning many e-learning doubters into users.
"During those tough times that were full of uncertainty, John made two or three videos per week for employees about where things were headed. As you might imagine, viewership was very high," says Kelly. "That was the tipping point when executives and employees got the importance of e-learning tools and technologies as part of the company culture. People realized you could reach the whole company at once with the same message and that it could remain available for access on demand."
For the rest of the fiscal year 2001, the use of e-learning tools and technologies accelerated an astonishing 700 percent per quarter--more online meetings, more use of video-on-demand, more logons to the learning portals, more online competency testing, more of just about everything that the ILSG and its IT partners had ready for use.
"I think that without the three key elements--a senior executive, a learning component, and IT--working together, you're lost," says Kelly. "Leave e-learning alone in the training organization and you'll remain a cost center that has trouble justifying itself. We bond with the IT organization to decide which tools and which infrastructure to use, and John determines how the company will interact and communicate. Together we stay focused on what's possible and why we should be doing this."
Operating in these circles, says Kelly, "means you will have to show some hard results." To help demonstrate business impact, the ILSG measured satisfaction, usage, and cost- and time-savings among the company's 40,000 reseller partners. "We asked, 'Has your satisfaction with Cisco increased because of using these (learning) tools and the frequency …