Article: Inclusivity, Hybrid Work, and AI: A conversation with Cisco India’s Daisy Chittilapilly


Inclusivity, Hybrid Work, and AI: A conversation with Cisco India’s Daisy Chittilapilly

In an exclusive interview with us, Daisy Chittilapilly shares insights into the broader tech landscape, emphasising key aspects such as the evolving dynamics of hybrid work, cybersecurity, workforce upskilling, the impact of generative AI on jobs and other pivotal industry trends.
Inclusivity, Hybrid Work, and AI: A conversation with Cisco India’s Daisy Chittilapilly

In a career spanning 28 years, Daisy Chittilapilly, President of Cisco India and SAARC, has witnessed firsthand the evolution of the tech industry. With over 19 years of leadership experience, including a stint as Managing Director for Cisco's Digital Transformation Office, Daisy is today one of the most eminent tech leaders in India.

For Daisy, adaptability and a commitment to continuous learning are foundational in this dynamic sector. Engaging in global conversations and embracing change are not just professional values, but vital components of the technological movement.

As India strives for net-zero status, Daisy emphasises the critical need for cybersecurity and the imperative to make technology inclusive, ensuring that no one is left behind. Daisy – who also serves on the executive council for Nasscom and as the co-chair of the FICCI National Committee for AI and digital transformation – shared a unique perspective on the industry's current landscape, from the evolution of hybrid work to the omnipresence of artificial intelligence. 

Here are excerpts from our exclusive interview. 

Given the dynamic shifts we've witnessed in the tech industry over the last three and a half years, how do you see the current landscape of the larger tech industry, particularly in India?  

The keyword that resonates with the Indian economy, and by extension, the tech industry, is “growth”. There are several key factors that are currently shaping the tech industry in India.

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  1. There's a revolution underway – the paradigm shift that hybrid work brought forth. We're all adapting to new ways of working, and enterprises across industries are still navigating what the final form of hybrid work will be in India.
  2. Artificial intelligence has once again taken centre stage – What's especially significant is that we're now in the era of augmented intelligence. In practically every endeavour, AI will play a role in enhancing our capabilities. We are starting to see use cases across sectors, both within enterprises as well as social sectors.
  3. Data security remains a critical concern for many countries – India is no exception, with a surge in cyber attacks. The key here is how we build robust defence mechanisms for various sectors, enterprises, and citizens. Equally crucial is how we prioritise and cultivate a cyber-ready workforce in the wake of the evolution of next-gen technologies and digital innovations.
  4. Tech for all inclusivity imperative – There's a growing realisation that any technology deployed on a mass scale in the country must be inclusive. It's heartening to see a concerted effort to ensure that all use cases, whether for citizens or private enterprises, are designed with the intention of leaving no one behind.
  5. Environmentally sustainable use of tech – India's commitment to becoming a net-zero country underscores the importance of using technology in an environmentally sustainable manner. As we press forward on the digitisation of the country's IT sectors, the delicate balance between purpose and sustainability is a crucial consideration, and it’s heartening to see this dialogue on equilibrium taking shape in India.

As you rightly pointed out, AI has once again taken centre stage. In light of this surge of generative AI, how is Cisco positioning itself to harness this technological wave?

We've long been proponents of AI, ingraining its elements into every facet of our technology at Cisco. This strategic stance paints AI not only as a powerful tool but also underscores its far-reaching implications. However, it's crucial to acknowledge that with great power comes great responsibility. Just as we're yet to fully comprehend the breadth of its positive applications, we must also grapple with the potential negative consequences.

At Cisco, our approach to AI has always been underpinned by a robust framework of responsible practices. While considerations of privacy and data integrity have always been integral to our AI endeavors, a fresh dimension has emerged - human rights in the context of AI's responsible use. This is an aspect we're closely monitoring and actively engaging with.

Our approach is 'going slow to go fast' which is driven by a desire to thoroughly understand the implications of this monumental technology. We're committed to comprehending the full spectrum of use cases before deploying it, not just for ourselves, but also for our customers, partners, governments, and citizens at large. The discourse surrounding the responsible use of AI is dynamic, both internally and in the forums I engage in. Every conversation provides a dual perspective - the excitement over its transformative potential, and the augmented responsibility it places on technology players and the broader ecosystem.

For us, while experiments are indeed underway, we're still in the process of determining the most impactful use cases. It's an ongoing journey, and the verdict on the optimal applications of AI is still evolving.

Do you find this cautious approach echoed by your partners as well? Could you share other insights into what your customers and partners are saying about this surge in AI adoption? 

Enterprises today are largely engaged in tailoring AI to their specific industries. For instance, banks are integrating AI into their operations, while manufacturing entities are optimising workflows. FMCG companies are exploring ways to enhance product launches. This process involves not only refining use cases but also defining and experimenting with language models. While these discussions are in their early stages, they are integral to identifying enterprise-specific applications.

Another pivotal conversation revolves around the impact on job profiles. Companies are re-evaluating roles within and outside their organisations. This prompts a broader conversation about skilling and reskilling the workforce. While AI presents new opportunities, it also streamlines or replaces certain tasks. This necessitates an adjustment of skill sets to align with the evolving AI landscape.

In every industry, AI offers a wealth of automation possibilities. Whether it's automating mundane tasks or augmenting human intelligence, the potential is immense. The full spectrum of emerging job roles remains unpredictable, with demands for skills like emotional intelligence, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

What were once regarded as 'soft skills' are now evolving into crucial 'hard skills'. This transformation isn't confined to a specific industry; AI has the capacity to disrupt every sector, presenting numerous opportunities for application from the social sector to enterprise to government.

What is India's current stance on harnessing this technology and its regulatory role? How can nations and businesses walk the fine line to ensure we're not choking innovation while allowing businesses to experiment and come up with responsible use of AI?

In India, the AI landscape is vibrant and dynamic, especially within the startup ecosystem supported by Nasscom and other tech forums. Many startups are deeply focused on AI, demonstrating exciting advancements. Besides hyper-scalers, large brands are actively developing sector-specific analytics and use cases, further enriching the AI ecosystem.

When it comes to regulation, there's a consensus on the need for governance without stifling innovation. India, being a trusted IT services hub and aspiring to be the digital capital of the world, understands the importance of establishing trust with stakeholders, including partners and customers. This trust will be pivotal in shaping responsible AI practices.

Regarding global consensus on AI regulation, India acknowledges the delicate balance needed. There's a cautious approach to avoiding overregulation, which can potentially impede innovation. Currently, extensive conversations between industry leaders, policymakers, and the government are ongoing. The shared understanding is that while the full spectrum of AI's impact is not yet entirely clear, introducing overly restrictive regulations prematurely could hinder progress.

When it comes to achieving consensus on AI's ethical boundaries, it's reminiscent of early climate discussions. Back then, consensus was challenging, but the criticality of the matter led to concerted global action. Similarly, with AI, there's a widespread understanding of the need for responsible development. It's heartening to witness this consciousness early in the technology's evolution, indicating a positive trajectory towards ethical AI practices.

Enterprises are already proactively establishing frameworks for responsible AI, emphasising transparency and ethics. Governments, irrespective of their stance on other issues, are aligned in recognising the importance of comprehensive governance structures. While urgency is tempered by the nascent stage of AI development, the commitment to thorough examination and consensus-building is evident.

You mentioned the evolution of hybrid work. With the return to the office, there seems to be a standoff between executives and employees. How do you view the balance between remote work and in-office work?

The key word here is "full time”. While hybrid work doesn't exclusively mean working remotely, we strongly advocate for its benefits. It's noteworthy that despite some executives urging a return to the office, many announcements from various brands suggest a different approach.

The idea of spending extended periods in offices without a substantial need is under scrutiny. The motivations for coming to work vary widely. At Cisco, we've championed flexible working long before the advent of COVID-19. Flexibility lies at the heart of this discourse. It's not just about working from home or the office; it's about having the freedom to work where one can be most effective and productive while managing diverse responsibilities and priorities.

Our approach centres on three key facets of the hybrid organisation: people, technology, and spaces. From a people-centric perspective, it's about affording choice and flexibility. On the technological front, we recognise the need for inclusive and immersive workplaces, necessitating the right technological infrastructure. Moreover, the concept of spaces is evolving. The future workplace won't be rows of desks, but an environment seamlessly supporting both remote and on-site work, creating an inclusive experience for all. It's this triad of elements that forms the core of our approach to hybrid work.

Given the evolving expectations of our employees, we're actively reassessing various aspects of work to ensure they align with the changing landscape. Flexibility and inclusivity remain central to our strategy for a successful hybrid work model.

You mentioned the importance of reskilling in light of the evolving AI landscape. How does this affect your role in talent management and ensuring diversity and inclusion at Cisco? Could you also touch on the specific metrics or strategies you use to track DEI progress?

For many years, we've championed Equal Employment Opportunity in our workspace. To further this commitment, we're implementing several initiatives. Diverse interview panels and inclusive candidate slates are just the beginning. We're not only addressing gender diversity but the entire spectrum of diversity. These efforts serve as a foundation for our leaders and team members to broaden their perspectives.

One of the most progressive steps we're taking is embracing inclusive and skill-based hiring practices across various business units. It's a fresh approach at Cisco, one that's helping us identify and eliminate our unconscious biases in the hiring process.

Our focus on representation is crucial, as it's not just a concern for us, but an imperative. The pandemic's impact on women's participation in the workforce, especially in the tech sector, is significant. We've regressed a few years in this aspect. This isn't just an issue specific to India, but a broader global concern.

Gender diversity is often the most visible aspect, and rightly so. However, we're also committed to fostering diversity of thought and generational diversity. We want our teams to reflect a wide range of experiences and perspectives. This includes early-career professionals, ensuring that inclusion is a cornerstone of all our projects.

Yet, we're mindful of a concerning trend in the middle stages of careers. Despite starting with strong representation at entry levels, we're seeing a drop-off. To address this, we've initiated programs like the 'leaky bucket' strategy. We maintain connections with our alumni, offering opportunities for second careers and focused upskilling efforts tailored to the demands of today's workplace.

Flexibility is a linchpin in our approach. It's not just about accommodating those with childcare responsibilities, but also recognising the importance of supporting men with caregiving roles and other responsibilities. This flexibility is designed to prevent a 'leaky bucket' scenario, where talented individuals are lost due to increasing demands on their time.

To be candid, it's an ongoing struggle, and there's work to be done. We're committed to this journey.

What’s your advice for recruitment specialists and other leaders on ensuring DEI and young women who are interested in pursuing a career in tech?

Recognise the power of diversity. It's not an extraordinary effort, but a pathway to building a more innovative and sustainable organization.

Understand the value of varied perspectives. Leaders who seamlessly integrate diversity into their teams understand the value of diverse viewpoints. They aim for a team that doesn't all look and think alike, understanding that this diversity fosters resilience and growth.

Possess the necessary skills and qualifications, regardless of background. This includes investing time and effort to build expertise. Advocacy and confidence are equally important, especially for those from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Anticipate setbacks, but also cultivate the determination to rise again. Understand that seeking an ideal scenario may not always be possible, but operating in a world striving for perfect representation is a worthy aspiration.

Find your voice, express your opinions, and advocate for what you want, regardless of where you start. Be a supportive ally for others facing similar challenges. Speaking up, both internally and externally, is a powerful tool for change. Most people evolve their perspectives when exposed to diverse viewpoints.

You have touched upon the key shifts and trends of the last three years. I'm intrigued to know about your leadership style. Has any aspect of your leadership style changed?

Certainly, there's been a notable evolution in what we prize in leadership over the past few years. Empathy, in particular, has rightfully claimed a central role. Understanding and connecting with the experiences of others, coupled with a willingness to be open and vulnerable, has become a cornerstone of effective leadership. Personally, I've long held empathy in high regard, and it's heartening to witness its ascendancy.

Another enduring facet of leadership lies in the adept handling of change. In today's fast-paced world, where shifts and disruptions have become par for the course, agility is paramount. Whether it's navigating new technologies like blockchain, responding to geopolitical shifts, or adapting to global economic fluctuations, the landscape is always in flux. Embracing change isn't merely a survival tactic; it's the key to thriving and advancing. At Cisco, this dynamic is vividly evident as we steer our transformation towards a services-oriented, subscription-driven, analytics solutions provider—a response to the evolving needs of our customers.

Guiding teams through such a terrain of uncertainty demands a unique blend of adaptability, empathy, and compassion. It's about coaxing out the finest in individuals and teams, even when the road ahead is shrouded in mist.

What's particularly striking is the shift in our perception of leaders. It's now not just acceptable but commendable to admit when you don't have all the answers. This willingness to be candid and forthright about limitations marks a significant departure from the traditional image of an all-knowing leader, particularly in the tech sphere.

COVID-19, in particular, has acted as a catalyst for this transformation, underscoring the vital role of authentic, empathetic leadership during times of crisis.

Dive into our first series of exclusive interviews with CEOs and MDs of leading organisations by clicking this link. As part of this ongoing series called LeadingEdge, we contrinue to bring you fresh insights from top leaders in India, Singapore and beyond. Stay tuned!

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Topics: Technology, #LeadingEdge, #CEOseries

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