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Cisco Reinvents Social Learning

In the span of just 30 years, multinational network solutions company Cisco Systems Inc. has grown from two Stanford University professors building routers in their spare time to a Fortune500 global networking giant, with more than 70,000 employees and $12 billion in annual revenue.

One of the reasons Cisco has been so successful is it constantly adapts to shifts in the marketplace. This enables it to expand its footprint and product offerings to meet customers’ changing needs. The most recent market shift drove the company to move to a digital solutions and service organization from a hardware-focused business. To accommodate the transformation,the company made dramatic talent management changes, merging sales teams and creating new roles and expectations for service staff in eachcustomer segment to work more collaboratively to solve customer problems.

That presented a unique set of learning challenges, said Tejas Vashi, Cisco’s director of product strategy and marketing. As a hardware company, the services team supported the products, but in the digital solutions business model, they had to be more strategic in their service offering. “It’s no longer about supporting warranties; it’s about supporting client organizations to help them drive business outcomes,” Vashi said.

That would require a dramatic shift, and the learning team wasn’t sure how ready employees were to embrace the new roles. In 2013, the organization’s chief services officer conducted an employee survey to assess readiness. The results confirmed a substantial gap, said Kathy Bries, senior director and general manager for Learning@Cisco. “It showed us we would have to reskill and upskill most of the staff to execute the new vision.”

That would be no small feat. The services team consists of almost 15,000 global employees who represent five generations, so the learning solution had to be flexible, adaptable and global.

“We could have just rolled out a bunch of courses, but that wouldn’t have been efficient,” Bries said.

Instead, the learning team turned to Cisco’s software development group for help. Together, they came up with a plan to build Cisco Career Connections, a virtual platform to host formal and informal training, a learning management system, social networking tools, career-related blogs and videos, online mentoring, and interactive tools that let learners ask questions and get feedback from experts across the organization.

“It is a blend of LinkedIn, Facebook and content management, with learning, social media, wikis and other collaboration technology,” said Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, vice president and general manager at Cisco.

A Collaborative Effort
One big risk in building such an extensive learning platform is whether employees will use it. To ensurebuy-in from the outset, users were involved in every aspect of the design and development process. Before they started building, the learning team surveyed employees about what learning and collaboration tools they would like to see on the platform, and incorporated their feedback into the plan. Once development began, users helped test every version for relevance and ease of use.

Developers pursued a mobile-first design strategy, building all features for a mobile environment first to ensure the user experience would be the same no matter what device learners used to connect. Employees also said they wanted to be able to collaborate with other team members and experts across the organization. That led developers to build an expert search tool, and incorporate WebEx and Jabber, Cisco’s peer-to-peer collaboration tool, into the platform so users could find and connect with anyone in the company.

The social and collaborative aspect of the platform was critical to its success, said Michael Carter, vice president of HR at Cisco. “The place where learning happens in not always codified in a single department or experience,” he said. “It happens everywhere that people are working together.” This is especially important for younger “digital natives” who are accustomed to finding answers to questions moreorganically, through their own research or by asking questions.

Creating a collaborative experience also enabled Cisco’s learning team to crowdsource much of the content and learning opportunities that now populate the platform. Employees can use the collaboration tools to find and ask experts questions, and they have places to share corporate knowledge that doesn’t typically fit into a traditional learning environment.

For example, the engineering team has an informal list of resources they used to share with each other via email. “In the past, if you didn’t get the email list, you didn’t get that information,” said Ryan Rose, business operation manager for Learning@Cisco. Now that list is stored in the online knowledge repository and accessible to the whole organization.

The platform isn’t only about informal collaboration, however. Employees can take online courses, sign up for classroom training, and design and share career path documents through the learning management tools. Managers also can review what their teams are doing on the platform, including which courses they complete and whether they participate in online forums.

“The formal and informal pieces complement each other,” said Carlos Pignataro, an engineer for Cisco Services. “If you tried to have one without the other, you would be missing many learning opportunities.”

Local Leaders Spur Interest
Building the platform was only half the challenge. Once it was up and running, the learning team still had to get people to log on, use the tools and engage in conversations. It didn’t happen right away.

To engage first-time users, Cisco’s HR and services team hosted all hands meetings to discuss the service talent transformation strategy and to educate employees about the platform. They also recruited leaders from across the services organization to blog, message and participate in discussion forums, and to provide insight on how the strategy ties to organizational development and to the employees. 

Pignataro was one of the early contributors, writing weekly blogs on technology trends and engineering career development tracks. He also helped author a series of “playbooks” defining the roles and career paths for different job categories in the engineering group.

Having experts from within the core teams create content was a strategic decision to make the site more engaging, he said. “Instead of having an SVP four times removed telling you something about your job, it comes from another engineer who understands what you’re going through.”

Many leaders invited to participate were excited to contribute because they saw it as an opportunity to stay connected with the broader organization, and fulfill their career development responsibilities. “Part of my job is to foster our bench of talent,” Pignataro said. “The blog gave me a platform to amplify my message.”

He said he also likes that the playbooks address the daily requirements of particular jobs, while the blog is more future-focused. “That’s where I talk about technology trends with a forward-looking perspective.”

That’s not just Pignataro’s view. At the end of every blog, he invites readers to comment and ask questions, which has generated spirited conversations. “Some of them go on for months, and the whole organization can read them,” he said. “That is the real value of the blogs.”

Still, even with rich content and familiar faces, the platform wasn’t equally engaging for everyone. They initially rolled the platform out as a pilot project in fall 2013 to technical staff in the services organization. It was a hit early on, but as they expanded it to the rest of the organization, the value proposition was more complicated.

Employees worried about their long-term career options were interested because they were looking for ways to expand their skills so they wouldn’t become obsolete, Carter said. But for others, the value proposition was less clear. To make it more intriguing, the learning team added playbooks for more than 30 roles, and asked consultants and leaders from nontechnical groups to promote the platform, host discussions and post blogs on business and strategic topics.

It took longer for employees to get comfortable enough to really engage on the site. At first, users felt like they were being watched and were hesitant to ask questions or offer feedback, Vashi said. “There was a sense of ‘who am I to ask this expert for help?’ But after about six months they started participating more.”

Analytics Prove It Works
Now it has become an integral part of the service team experience. Since rolling it out in September 2014, the number of users has jumped to 14,000 from 250, and 80 percent of the content is socially generated through blogs, forums, discussions and Q&As. “When we first started, 90 percent of the content was curated by HR,” Rose said. “We take that as a true measure of success, because users wouldn’t engage with it and share content if they saw no value in it.”

The learning team also uses analytics to track ongoing usage rates, including the number of passive and active users, click-thru traffic and how users rank content. These metrics help them see how Cisco community engages with the platform overall, and it helps managers assess the individual performance and expertise of their people as part of their performance reviews.

The HR team prefers to downplay this aspect of the platform, however. “When you mention that content is connected to performance reviews, people become less open,” Learning@Cisco’s Bries said. “So we position it as a learning and knowledge platform they can use to develop themselves.”

While they haven’t yet tied the platform directly to business results, Bries said services as a percentage of the business has grown significantly in the past year, which suggests a correlation. The company also recently rolled out the platform as a cloud-based customer solution called Cisco Collaborative Knowledge, which means it is now generating its own revenue stream. “It helped that we were about to impart our ownexperiences into the platform before rolling it out to customers,” he said. “That will make it more useful and relevant for all of our users.”