John Chambers on collaboration, avatars and mashups

John Chambers on collaboration, avatars and mashups

Cisco CEO, John Chambers, talks about collaboration, avatars and mashups as well as some of the broader environmental and social concerns corporates are facing today.

You said [in your keynote] that SMBs tend to react faster than enterprises, can you elaborate on that?

John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems Inc. (JC): SMBs tend to make decisions quickly because of their business knowledge and their ability to view technology as a way to achieve their goals. Very often large enterprises evaluate the technology, evaluate the options, have a business sponsor, and roll it out carefully over time. So, often SMBs understand the business options quicker.

One thing that may change the equation for enterprises is when you see an application like TelePresence (Cisco's new high-definition video-conferencing technology) where you just simply don't need to explain it: the CEO can see [the benefit] right away. It isn't like many enterprise apps where it takes 3-4 years to implement and integrate with the applications you put on top of it, to make it effective in the long-term.

With TelePresence, it's a best-case scenario: simple, integrated, converged. When you see it, you know you're going to save on business travel [and] on your service and support models. We think that TelePresence will have a major impact.

You also said that you expect your own company to save about US$150 million annually.

That's correct. That's money in the bank, and it was very easy to do. That's before you do the 'fancy stuff': how you use this technology to work from home a little bit differently, how to design your sensors to run your office more effectively, more efficient data center usage.

Obviously TelePresence is aimed at reducing business travel, thus helping enterprises to improve their "carbon footprint." Do you see other opportunities for Cisco to improve their "green" profile?

There are many ways, whether it's improving the efficiency of your data centers, or improving the functionalities of equipment that's not being used to its fullest potential. Part of it is personalizing use of technology: when you can get the information you want in the medium you want it in, whether it be email, voice or video, that's a gain in efficiency as well. We believe in open architecture, simplicity, and interoperability, and these [qualities] make this personalization possible.

Back to TelePresence, we think that any company deploying this technology will save 10-20 percent on their business travel costs. This isn't something we developed overnight, we've taken about six years of development to get to this point.

Tell us something you've learned recently, in the course of running your business, that's surprised you.

One thing I've found surprising is that our research shows people are often more willing to talk to a character, an avatar [on video] rather than an actual person. Why is this important? Take an area like health care, where people might be uncomfortable discussing issues of a personal nature with another person, but are more likely to be honest when talking to an avatar.

So, that surprised me, but if you think about it, it makes sense.

One of the themes of this conference is: "the network is the platform." How do you see this playing out in the context of the enterprise space?

We'll see a blurring of traditional boundaries. It's not going to be enterprise-to-consumer or enterprise as service provider. It's going to be any combination of networks, and any combination of devices, to anyone in the world. I think that time and distance will become less important in terms of collaboration.

As one of IT's better known leaders, what's your position on corporate social responsibility (CSR)? What advice do you have for other business leaders on CSR?

Corporate social responsibility is simply good for business. I've been saying that for years, and I used to be in the minority, but now I see more businesses in all sectors starting to realize this. In the past the attitude used to be "that's not the responsibility of the CEO," but I disagree with that. I think companies, especially large and successful ones, will benefit from a proactive corporate social responsibility policy.

A good example of this is the Middle East. In our operations there we've aligned with governments to help promote education and health care, we've focused on how to change things and help countries evolve. Now we're seeing these initiatives helping these countries develop a middle class, improve their economies and when people see they have an economic future, we think that makes a difference. We see the same thing in eastern Europe, see the same thing in Asia, see the same thing in Latin America.

Cisco is involved in so many different market segments. Overall, where do you see your particular growth-areas?

Video is the "killer app" for the whole networking and entertainment industry. It'll be used for collaboration tools like TelePresence, but also for entertainment, and we see tremendous growth in this area.

The next phase will be mobility. As you combine these [mobile] devices, you open up a whole new set of productivity tools, applications and collaboration capability. There will of course be consumer use, but on the enterprise side, employees will be able to work and collaborate from home, and as mobility becomes more prevalent it will mean that workers will have even more freedom in the collaboration sphere.

Broadband speeds are another driver in this area. In Asia, you've got extremely fast connectivity in Japan, also in Korea, while Singapore and Hong Kong are also entering the arena of fiber-to-the-home [and] 1 Gbps speeds. I think we're seeing a situation where smaller nations and emerging nations actually lead. This is helping drive a market transition towards Web 2.0 technologies.

We've heard a lot during this conference about Web 2.0, what does the term mean to you?

We focus on market transitions and aim five to seven years ahead. Right now I think we're two years ahead of the pack. But that doesn't mean that we can relax-this industry moves extremely fast.

Web 2.0 is a direction that will allow apps to be developed much faster. All of us will add value through apps, and we'll see viral growth in this area. One example is mashups, especially ones using Google Earth combined with other apps. Two years ago, I might have been more hesitant about this area, but I've seen how it's grown.

Look at the interactivity of IM [instant messaging]. It's made communication much more efficient, and many in the enterprise community look to the consumer space for ideas and inspiration.

Earlier, I talked about SMBs and how they move faster than enterprises in many cases. But to get the attention of SMBs, you have to give them ease-of-use in business applications. The functionality of the apps must be hidden to the end-user-fixed or mobile makes no difference to them. This is why we're a believer in interoperability.

On your own future with the company...ever given any thought to retirement?

I love what I do, and if isn't obvious that I'm passionate about it, then I'm not conveying that well! (Editor's Note: anyone who's heard Mr Chambers speak knows that there are few people in any industry as passionate about what they do).

I think we're in the second wave of the company, and I'm here for the foreseeable future. Now, do I have three to five internal candidates who could be CEO? Oh yeah. Will we make that transition at the right point in time in a smooth way? Yes. You've never seen a story about one of our executives leaving in a negative way. We also have very low turnover, and we think Cisco is a stimulating place to work.

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