Chambers banks Cisco's future on Web 2.0

Catching market transitions vital to success, Cisco CEO says

Cisco's John Chambers says Web 2.0 is the future of his company and the industry.

Cisco CEO John Chambers says the company's future depends on technologies that enable human collaboration.

"We build our culture at Cisco around catching market transitions," Chambers said Tuesday during a keynote address on Web 2.0 and collaboration at Forrester Research's IT Forum in Las Vegas. Cisco's moves in Web 2.0, from its TelePresence video conferencing technology to the acquisition of WebEx, are steps toward making sure Cisco doesn't get upstaged by more innovative competitors.

"It isn't just about growth, it's about survival," Chambers said. "Market transitions are built on catching them right, and if you miss them it's almost impossible to recover."

Chambers also talked about how collaboration efforts within Cisco almost failed. An effective Web 2.0 strategy has to be spearheaded by a CEO, but leadership also has to give up some power to make it work, he noted.

"The hard part about collaboration is we don't like change," Chambers said. "Nor did my organization and nor did I. I love command and control and I'm pretty good at it. 65,000 people, I say turn right, we turn right. I very rarely have to say it twice. That's not the future. It's the ability of groups to think together, to combine knowledge and experience."

The first two years of collaboration in Cisco were "miserable," Chambers said, noting that when he first thought about Web 2.0 he was interested mainly in telepresence and simple forms of collaboration.

One of Chambers' 30-year-old employees told him "you've got to quit talking about just telepresence with collaboration. You've got to really say how all these tools, the blogging capabilities, the wikis etc. really tie together into an architectural approach."

It got better. "Now it's almost viral at Cisco," Chambers said. "It took me making some changes. About 20% of my leadership did not make it through this."

Chambers got so excited talking about collaboration that he started roaming through the crowd of several hundred people. He discussed Cisco's unified communications strategy, of letting users collaborate with any device, and how telepresence will be seamlessly integrated with other technologies like blogging and wikis. (Compare unified communications products.) He previewed some cool technology that's right out of Star Trek. "Within a very short time we will be able to do holograms with this type of technology, so you can literally beam people into a room and have a conversation virtually," Chambers said. "We already demonstrated that in India." 

Chambers' preferred methods of communicating, he said, are text messages and video. Beyond collaborating internally, Chambers said he's doing more virtual meetings. He already travels physically to many countries throughout the year, but with telepresence he said he will double the number of customers he speaks with while doing half his customary travel.

Voice and video are the keys to collaboration among people who aren't physically near each other, he said. Chambers used to think telepresence was 90% as effective as an in-person meeting. Now, he said, he thinks it's even better than an in-person meeting because of tools that let him easily share data and presentations with people on the other end of the conversation.

"For me, it's a lot like 'Scottie, beam me up,'" Chambers said. "What is missing is integrating it with a lot more tools, which we're going to attempt to do. You'll see that it will capture the imagination of what's possible."

Chambers' optimistic view of the future has people collaborating from anywhere, using any device in any mode they want. Virtually nothing will be confined to one physical location, and networks will no longer be "device-sensitive."

"We'll talk about everything in the future, in my opinion, as a service," he said. "Not just software-as-a-service, but … processing power as a service, storage as a service, bandwidth as a service."

While opening the doors to more effective collaboration, Web 2.0 has brought with it a number of security headaches. Point products solving specific problems won't be enough, Chambers said. A holistic approach that views security as an architecture rather than a set of individual technologies is what's needed, he said.

"There is no such thing as a secure data center or secure network," he said. "There's just degrees of security where you're going to be one or two steps ahead of the bad guys."

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