Article: Collaboration technology: There's no going back


Collaboration technology: There's no going back

Inder Sidhu, Senior VP, Strategy & Planning, Cisco

At Cisco, we routinely gather experts from three or more countries—including India—to solve customer problems in real time


Industries that are interesting to me are ones where network technology adoption can have the greatest impact


How will the massive deployment of conferencing technology change the workplaces of the future?

The massive deployment of collaboration technology will have a number of significant impacts.
For starters, it will reduce barriers that commonly divide people, making the world a more connected and inter-dependent place. With collaboration technology, time and distance are rendered meaningless, so people can work more flexible hours and with a greater than usual number of colleagues.

At Cisco, we routinely gather experts from three or more countries—including India—to solve customer problems in real time. Collaboration technology, thus, helps us better leverage our knowledge and capabilities, and deploy it where it is needed most. This increase in scalability is making Cisco a more agile and adept company—and not just internally. We’re better able to communicate with our partners, suppliers and customers, too. In other words, collaboration has made us more competitive and receptive.

To make the most from collaborative technology, we have adjusted our management structure. In addition to our traditional command-and-control model, we also have a complementary decentralized model that drives decision making deeper into the field. Together, they help us work smarter and faster than we ever imagined possible.

How quickly do you see emerging economies like India adopting web conference components—simple remote meetings, virtual training classes, large events, and online technical assistance? Do you see bandwidth as a major constraint in the Indian context?

The simple answer is web conferencing is happening now—in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America and Africa, too.

The broader question is ‘how widespread is adoption?’ If you go to a major metropolitan area in Poland, India, Chile or South Africa, you’ll find significant penetration of broadband networking technology. In many cases it’s greater than 30 percent for consumers, and 70 percent for businesses and government offices. In Dubai, for example, connectivity is often faster and cheaper than it is in Los Angeles or London.

But in smaller towns and rural areas, connectivity remains a challenge. Fortunately, things are improving. Brazil, for example, has asked Cisco to help it increase broadband penetration to 750 regional hubs and smaller municipalities.
Adoption in emerging economies is happening in gradual waves, much as it did in more developed counties. But the time between waves has been compressed, and in some cases the waves are coming simultaneously. Online technical assistance and simple remote meetings are already very common, especially in knowledge-based industries such as IT and financial services. In the future, virtual training classes and even virtual events will be available in emerging countries.
Unlike established countries, which relied on computers long before mobile devices, emerging economies are adopting collaboration technologies first on mobile platforms.

Which sectors do you see adapting and utilizing such new technology the fastest?

Knowledge industries are traditionally the first adopters of technology. That includes information technology, financial services, media and entertainment and telecommunications. The next wave of adopters tend to be retailers and professionals service companies—industries that greatly benefit from technology adoption but whose fates are not completely tied to it.
Industries that are interesting to me are ones where network technology adoption can have the greatest impact. That includes education and healthcare. While the former can use technology to change lives, the latter can use it to save lives. That’s tremendous.

In technology years, how far are we from practically deploying a feasible virtual office space environment where individual physical location can be rendered immaterial?

Let me answer by turning the tables and asking a question of my own: What would be the greater imposition on you: the loss of your car, or the loss of your PC or mobile device? The answer reveals a lot about what you perceive to be a “feasible, virtual office space.”

If you answered “your car,” then chances are you rely on you face-to-face communications, physical presence and real-time interactions. Virtual interactions do not yet mimic those of the real world. My best guess as to when a “feasible, virtual” replacement for that is available? Three-to-five years.

Now suppose you answered my question with “your PC.” Much of your life is probably already conducted virtually—your interactions, transactions and communications. If that is the case, then a feasible alternative to an office space exists today. Collaborative technologies already provide a semblance of the physical world in a virtual medium. They don’t yet replace chance encounters in the hallway, but they are already credible alternatives to targeted interactions such as meetings, conferences and discussions.

Many technology gurus and strategists believe that business travel, paper products and commercial real estate will be the ultimate victims of a surge in online collaboration and real-time communication. What is your view on this?

No question that all of these will be impacted. The rate is the only thing in doubt.

As I mentioned previously, Cisco dramatically reduced its travel budget when the economy entered the recession—and with little impact to our competitiveness or responsiveness. After the eruption of the volcano in Iceland, interest in collaboration technology spiked—especially among business travelers who were trapped overseas for days on end.
As for paper production, we clearly see the impact of digital technology in the U.S. In Cincinnati, Seattle and other cities, major newspapers have stopped printing and gone to online editions only. Innovations such as the Apple iPad and the Amazon Kindle will only accelerate this trend.

And as for real estate, thanks to email, instant messaging, video conferencing, application sharing and other collaboration technologies, more companies are allowing their employees to work from home than ever before. It’s better for the environment and for an employer’s bottom line. In the United States, one of our most promising air carriers, JetBlue, has embraced “homesourcing.” Virtually all of its travel reservations agents work from their homes. Not all businesses, of course, can operate this way. But with each passing day, more and more of what was done in person now occurs in the virtual realm. The tide is turning virtual for many industries and, like it or not, there’s no going back.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at@indersidhu.


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Topics: C-Suite, Strategic HR

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