Cisco still all about the networks

Cisco is a company that I find very interesting indeed, as it has completely understood the importance of online networks not at just a technical level (its machines are what makes up much of what the internet is built on) but at a strategic business level.

That means much more than effusive but impractical “this changes everything” sentiment in the boardroom. Cisco, led by John Chambers’ born-again zeal for the potential of the hyper-connected world, has put its brains and brawn to work on building a networked company.

I blogged about the Cisco approach two years ago in a post called “Command and Control is Dead”. As I said, that means things like:

  • Accepting that the social network sum of its people is smarter than its C-level team
  • Embracing complexity and uncertainty about where technology, business and the whole world are headed
  • Designing business processes and growing a culture that takes both of the previous two points as its context
  • Being able to work in upwards of 25 major initiatives at once, where previously two at most were possible

Anyway, do read that original post and watch the video of John Chambers at MIT for more information.

Two years on, Cisco hasn’t deviated from pursuing the vision it laid out there. I was really interested to read an account by Andrew Sharrock of another Chambers keynote, this time last week in London, talking about how Cisco was doing and where its strategy was taking it next.

It seems that Cisco’s vision has deepened with experience, and the concept of Networked Economy taking over from the Information Economy is being discussed.


Adapting to the age of networks is an imperative not just for technology companies, but whole nation states, for most of the West, Chambers says. When we’re seeing R&D jobs leaving the UK for emerging markets, this view really rings true.


I was also interested to see the slide on Cisco’s Vision, Strategy and Execution, which shows global councils (see my previous post) still at the heart of being able to move on several fronts at once, seemingly producing the effect of allowing a big company to be agile, freeing itself from 20th century structures and accessing the latent power of its own human networks.

if you’re interested in reading more about Cisco’s Global Council approach, Andrew’s post also links to another by Raph D’Amico, which includes a diagram showing how Cisco prioritises opportunities.


“Command and control is dead”: the shape of next gen organisations is social networks


Image: John Chambers, CEO of Cisco: “command and control is dead”.

A lot of the questions I have had floating around my head for the past few years are beginning to be answered by innovative companies. Questions about how you manage companies, organisations, in the age of networks, when you have to move beyond the cloying constrictions of command and control hierarchies.

I was listening to a fantastic episode of Peter Day’s Global Business (can’t find it to link to on the BBC website – subscribe to it on iTunes if you don’t already). He was interviewing John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, about how the company was developing to keep up witht he pace of the web revolution.

The answer was that over the past two years Mr Chambers has been tearing down command and control as a way of doing things at Cisco. Why? Because “command and control is dead”, as will the companies that cling to it over the next five to ten years, he says.

Hunting around for more on the Cisco approach, I came across this lecture (can’t embed the video, please follow the link) John Chambers gave at MIT in January. It’s very, very good indeed – my ears pricked up especially at about 18 minutes in when he started talking about managing the 65.000 person business via social netowrks.

  • Uses a system of global councils (which build around a social networking group) to tackle any business need or challenge – they sketch out an outline approach within a couple of days and have a business plan in place in a couple of weeks (each council on market opportunities tends to be looking at $10 billion+ markets).
  • This networked, cross-functional approach is prioritised for all. Leaders are incentivised most of all on cross-functional success. [This is brilliant – focusing energy on tearing down divisions, siloes etc.] Behaviours changed very quickly once incentives were altered.
  • “I have 26 [of these Global Council networks] at the moment – I think it may be too few.” Previously Cisco’s operating committee were able to to tackle perhaps two or three of these issues a year.
  • “Speed and scale” – this is the imperative for adopting networks as a way of working. More gets done faster.
    “I blog. I would never have said I would blog two years ago. I video blog all of my messaging.”
  • Currently there Social networking approach means that instead of bringing 10 top leaders to bear on problems in the company he is able to get 50 to 500 leading. [Flatter organisations mean more leaders.]
  • Listen to how he had to adapt as a leader (59 minutes) – this was an effort of will for John personally. He had to sit on his hands and learn how not to be directive, among other things. But very quickly people were “making better decisions than I could have”.