Article: We can’t close the digital divide alone, says Cisco HR head as she discusses growth initiatives


We can’t close the digital divide alone, says Cisco HR head as she discusses growth initiatives

Sirisha Palepu disclosed that we have collaborated with the NIIT Foundation to introduce the CyberSuraksha program. Our pledge involves equipping 1 million underprivileged individuals with cybersecurity skills by 2025, with over 500,000 already trained.
We can’t close the digital divide alone, says Cisco HR head as she discusses growth initiatives

Where technology evolves at breakneck speed and industries undergo rapid transformations, the workforce finds itself standing at a crossroads of opportunity and uncertainty. Imagine a scenario where a seasoned professional, once considered a master of their craft, suddenly realises their skills are becoming obsolete in the face of advancing technology. 

Or envision a recent graduate, armed with a degree in hand, struggling to find employment due to a lack of practical skills aligned with industry demands. In both cases, the common thread is the pressing need for upskilling, learning, and reskilling initiatives to bridge the gap between existing skills and the evolving demands of the modern workplace.

That’s why, investing in upskilling programs enables employees to stay relevant in their roles and adapt to changing job requirements. These initiatives not only benefit individual employees but also contribute to the overall success and competitiveness of organisations. Upskilling programs empower employees to enhance their existing skills and acquire new ones, enabling them to take on new responsibilities and roles within the organisation. 

By continuously learning and developing their skill sets, employees become more versatile and adaptable, which enhances their employability and career prospects. Additionally, upskilling initiatives boost employee morale and engagement by demonstrating that the organisation values their growth and development, leading to higher job satisfaction and retention rates. Moreover, L&D and reskilling initiatives are essential for future-proofing the workforce and ensuring business resilience. 

As industries undergo digital transformation and automation, certain job roles may become obsolete while new roles emerge. In an exclusive interview with People Matters,  Sirisha Palepu, Director, People and Communities, Cisco India & SAARC, stressed on proactively reskilling employees to meet the demands of emerging technologies and market trends. 

She also discussed how organisations can mitigate the risk of talent shortages and skill gaps and what strategic approach to workforce development can enable companies to remain agile and responsive to changing business needs, positioning them for long-term success in a competitive environment. 

Excerpts from the interview: 

What have you noticed as biggest challenges in creating a cohesive and engaged global workforce to support business growth?

The world today is definitely BANI (Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear, and Incomprehensible), where people and technology interdependently coexist, collaboratively and competitively shaping each other's existence. The rapid pace of digital transformation and AI advancements merits a global discussion around how the 'workforce' is adapting to these technological changes and the evolving work environment. Although the digital revolution promises enhanced productivity, it also brings to light challenges related to the digital divide.

Amid this transformative era, 'experience' and 'time' remain the most valuable commodities for both our customers and employees. Keeping up with this shifting world, we at Cisco have been committed to crafting truly inclusive workplaces that empower every employee to bring their best selves to work.

The rapid evolution of technology presents a unique challenge, altering our learning methods, work dynamics, social interactions, and access to various services. The challenge lies in our ability to effectively harness technology, as its proper usage can enhance our overall well-being and serve as a powerful catalyst for progress. 

It’s true potential is realised only if we have a strong focus on ensuring those around us have access to the opportunities they need to thrive. At Cisco, we have grounded our decisions in data and listening to our people, not trying to retrofit previous ways of working into today's highly complex, evolved environment. 

Our belief in creating a conscious culture, built on trust and transparency, has been instrumental in creating an environment where employees feel empowered to unlock their full potential. 

As Cisco pushes the boundaries towards a hyperconnected future through constant innovation in technology and processes, we aim to drive positive change towards a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable world. We firmly believe that well-being, a conscious culture, and reskilling initiatives form the cornerstone of engaging and developing not only our employees but also the broader communities we serve, including our planet.

How have your learning programs evolved in the past few years to better address the need to develop skills in emerging technologies?

Almost a quarter of jobs (23%) are expected to change in the next five years, as pointed by the World Economic Forum's The Future of Jobs Report. With technology becoming core to everything we do, bridging the skill gap has never been more urgent. The shortage of skilled professionals further adds to this problem, with India Inc facing a shortage of about 150 million skilled workers at present, up from 138 million in 2020, according to a TeamLease report. 

The need of the hour is to focus on innovative approaches to facilitate reskilling, upskilling and job transitions at the grassroots level to build a generation of job creators rather than job seekers. 

Skills of the future are not just restricted to technical or digital skills but also extend to creative problem-solving, teamwork, global citizenship, and environmental stewardship. Our Learning and Development (L&D) strategies are continuously evolving at Cisco, encompassing a dual focus on building technical expertise and fostering thought leadership capabilities and talent engagement. 

We provide diverse learning opportunities, including interactive in-person and hybrid classroom sessions, and leverage cutting-edge platforms such as Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and Pluralsight to offer just-in-time micro-learning experiences. Our unique learning and development initiatives, such as Degreed and Talent Marketplace, allow employees to job shadow and learn from peers or leaders across topics and roles. 

By investing in our employees' learning and development, we ensure that our workforce is prepared to navigate any challenge that comes their way. All of these create a focus not just on technical skills, but skills required to make each of us better and make Cisco a great place to work.

We are also focusing on building a future-ready, agile, and skilled workforce that can envision and bring to life new possibilities of digital technologies like AI & ML, cybersecurity, automation, etc. – within and outside Cisco. To make this happen, we continue to invest in robust learning and development programs that help our employees stay updated with the latest technological advancements. 

Moreover, to help bridge the gaps in digital skills and prepare India's workforce for the jobs of the future, the Cisco Networking Academy has trained over 1.7 million students since inception with skills in emerging technologies such as networking, infrastructure automation, and cybersecurity. 

We have also recently committed to train 500,000 people with cybersecurity skills across the nation over the next three years. In addition, under our India Cash Grant program, we have partnered with the NIIT Foundation to launch the CyberSuraksha program with a commitment to training 1 million underprivileged individuals in cybersecurity by 2025 (with over 500,000 trained so far). 

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Retaining top talent is a common challenge in the tech industry. What are some best practices that you suggest HR leaders should follow to improve these talent indicators and retain talent?

India presents an immense opportunity for creating a global talent hub, with the gig workforce projected to grow to 23.5 million workers by 2029-30, as per a NITI Aayog study. Furthermore, a joint survey by Nasscom and Indeed India reveals that 8 out of 10 organisations are open to or exploring gig models. To harness this potential and prepare India's talent for the digital era, it's crucial for organisations to offer accessible training resources and adopt innovative, personalised methods, such as micro, mobile-first learning and role-based peer communities for knowledge sharing. However, what is more important is fostering a culture of continuous learning.

At Cisco, we follow a strengths-based approach to learning and development, wherein our quarterly development discussions extend beyond performance evaluations to uplifting ourselves and our teams. We understand that a one-size-fits-all approach is inadequate. To best play to our employees' strengths, we have to be flexible, adaptable, and open to what works best for each individual and team. 

This enables us to understand individual employees' unique learning needs, enabling us to tailor personalised programs that encompass diverse learning options such as online courses, workshops, mentoring, and gamified experiences, catering to diverse learning styles. As a result, our employees are energized to pursue their passions, contributing their best selves to the workplace. Measuring the quality of work, internal movements, employee retention, patents, and innovation, along with engagement pulse assessments, allows us to gauge the effectiveness of our programs. 

When it comes to addressing the challenge of retaining talent, it's essential for HR leaders to consider a holistic approach. Incorporating elements aligned with the company's purpose, collaborative partnerships, and community upliftment can make employees feel this is the workplace of the future.

Our learning and development strategies are continuously evolving, focusing on building technical expertise and fostering leadership capabilities and talent engagement. Embracing a holistic and comprehensive approach, we prioritize experiential learning methodologies that enable our employees to enjoy, thrive, learn, and grow within our organisation. 

We provide diverse learning opportunities, including programs like BetterUP, a one-on-one, personalised, six-month coaching program for both current and aspiring Leaders to successfully navigate the unique challenges leaders face. As we reimagine the future of work, we will continue to leverage our innovative technology and people-centric approach to help employees stay engaged, connected, productive, and effectively collaborate as they work from anywhere.  

While we continue to strive for full digital inclusion, it is our responsibility to keep well-being top of mind. Our recent partnership with OECD Centre to build a global knowledge hub for data and evidence on the influence of digital transformation on different aspects of people's lives and well-being will help us promote inclusion and equal opportunity for all to prosper in a global digital economy. 

We cannot close the digital divide on our own. It requires collaboration among governments, industries, educational institutions, non-profits, and community leaders, working together in new ways to prioritise our collective well-being for a healthy, prosperous, and safe digital life.

The landscape of work has shifted, with remote and hybrid work becoming more prevalent. How does Cisco navigate challenges associated with various work models and maintain a connected and engaged workforce?

As the leader in workplace collaboration solutions, Cisco has long embraced hybrid, flexible work styles. Our technology enables employees to securely work from anywhere and allows teams to balance business needs, employee preferences and create agile and healthy team dynamics. At Cisco, hybrid is about creating a work environment that supports maximum flexibility, productivity, and well-being in a culture of inclusivity and innovation that differentiates Cisco. 

Being continuously ranked as one of the top Great Places to Work worldwide, with a large and diverse workforce across continents and cultures, is a testament to our ongoing efforts to create a workplace that enables individuals to thrive, innovate, and make a positive impact. 

With a primary focus on employee well-being, we prioritize workplace flexibilities that not only foster a healthy work-life balance but also cater to individual needs. Our approach includes providing flexible work hours, ensuring the timely completion of deliverables, and allowing work-from-home options, backed by a robust infrastructure to meet regular and special requirements. We understand the significance of personal and medical needs and offer career breaks to accommodate these essential aspects of our employees' lives.

Our office spaces have been reimagined to better serve team collaboration, shifting away from dedicated offices and bookable desks to dedicated areas for collaboration, concentration, learning, and socializing. Real-time availability of open desks is also facilitated through our DNA Spaces technology. Additionally, we continuously evaluate and enhance our Webex tools to make them as inclusive as possible, incorporating features like real-time language translation and people focus.

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Topics: Diversity, #InternationalWomensDay, #HRTech, #HRCommunity

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