Q&A: Cisco CIO Offers Tips for Talkin' Business

In this Q&A, Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby shares advice on how IT pros can translate technology needs into business terms, manage the devices employees bring to the office and make a variety of collaboration tools work together.

Cisco CEO John Chambers this week announced a major restructuring of the company's business after two quarters of disappointing financial results. Namely, Cisco plans to stop producing consumer products like the Flip video camera and will roll its Umi consumer telepresence product into its business telepresence line. In addition, there will be a workforce reduction of 550 people.

As Cisco distances itself from consumer products, it will refocus all resources on its core competency: the networking, collaboration and video needs of the enterprise.

To this effect, the networking giant is opening a new state-of-the-art data center in Texas this week to help deliver traditional networking services via the cloud.

With cloud, collaboration and unified communications in mind, Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby sat down with CIO.com to discuss the future of the enterprise worker, as well as how IT can manage different mobiles devices and operating systems and justify cloud investments to the executive suite.

Rebecca Jacoby
Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby

The following is an edited version of Jacoby's interview with CIO.com's Shane O'Neill.

At the enterprise level, collaboration tools and unified communications sound great and can work well, but are often difficult to implement. How is Cisco helping to facilitate this transition to UC tools, both internally and for enterprise customers?

At Cisco we raised unified communications to a strategic imperative about three years ago. This allowed us to take a holistic look at how our communication systems come together, and do it in a way where we are not just pushing technology on people, but letting them interact with it. We invited people from outside IT to test our collaboration platform and tell us which collaboration and communication technologies they find useful. We knew we didn't have strong expertise in this area [unified communications] so we used the technology to invite employees in to help us learn.

Employees gave feedback on how they could apply UC technologies in real working environments. We set up a board with reps from every part of the company. It allowed us to customize our collaboration platform for specific business units such as customer service, engineering and manufacturing.

What about interoperability? What are the challenges of getting UC tools and platforms from different vendors to work together?

Interoperability is a huge priority for us internally and for our customers. As a CIO, complexity costs money. So it's important to be interoperable. IT organizations produce a lot of the costs from integrating and testing technologies. Communication systems need to be seamless, and the convergence of data and communication networks with voice and video is making it seamless.

We created a platform with Cisco Quad that allows you to see who your people are, what information you are working on and what communities you are associated with. The platform allows plug-in apps, and is relatively interoperable with the types of apps people use. That's critical to how it moves forward.

For example, we use Microsoft Exchange and Outlook for e-mail, which integrates with our UC platform and Quad. You're never going to get perfect interoperability. There are always going to be apps that will have architectural challenges. But having a high level of interoperability is a priority for us and it should be a priority for any enterprise.

With that said, Microsoft Lync and our UC platform [called Cisco Unified Workspace Licensing] do not have seamless interoperability. The more proprietary you are the less interoperable you are. Our approach is to be open and standards based.

With the consumerization of IT, it seems enterprises will need to support more and more tablets, PCs and smartphones. How realistic is this?

It's unrealistic to give a super high level of support on every single device anyone may want. It's also unrealistic to go to the other extreme and say "Sorry, we only support a couple of devices and that's it." At a global organization if you get really tight about which devices you support, you spend a lot of time justifying that to everybody, and that's not a good use of a CIOs time.

The way that we've approached it at Cisco is we have an architecture that allows us to be relatively open and give people a choice on what device they use: smartphone, laptop and tablet. Our responsibility in this regard is to monitor total costs of the devices and make sure they are secure. We communicate very clearly to users that not all devices will get the same level of support. You may have to share the cost of certain devices. If it's appropriate to someone's job we pay for their mobile service, but we don't pay for their mobile devices.

In return, employees can use the devices they want and can change devices more often than a typical IT department can accommodate. But there are trade-offs. They will need to share the costs and do a couple of things to make sure we can secure the device, such as installing our security client, and they have to use our support model.

This option to choose device extends to laptops too. Twenty percent of our employees use Macs. We have a support community for Macs within Cisco, and IT makes sure that community gets managed properly; but it's not the traditional call center support that we have for Windows. It's important that we educate users on what the trade-offs are for the devices they use so we can manage costs while giving them a choice.

You're a CIO with a business background: What advice do you have for CIOs and IT directors about how to communicate with business executives and put technology needs in business terms?

When I talk to my organization and we ask ourselves what we need to work on the most, the answer is always "communication." IT people can get caught up in IT-speak. Which is fine — it's familiar to that group and efficient to get the work done. But when talking to the business side it's critical to use a different language to address what they care about. This is especially important today with the rise in cloud services. Cloud services make it appear that there is now an alternative to IT. It's become more important than ever for IT to communicate how they are delivering IT services, what they cost, what value they bring, how long it will take, and what the risks and trade-offs are. This is what the business cares about.

Figuring out what the salient points are when talking to the business side is critical if you want to be an effective communicator. The business side doesn't need to know everything about the way the technology works, but they do need to know about the specific benefits and risks.

I tell my organization that 'money is the language of business.' You have to talk about a cloud service in terms of its total cost and how the money flows and changes over time, and how you can produce revenue for the company.

Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at soneill@cio.com

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