How Cisco broke HR

Written by
Karam Filfilan

24 Jul 2017

24 Jul 2017 • by Karam Filfilan

Gianpaolo Barozzi faced a problem. Employed by Cisco, a marketleading company that produces some of the world’s most innovative technology products, he understood the business requirement to be forward thinking. Yet, as a senior director of HR, he felt his own function wasn’t as creative as it could be.

“We needed a different way to talk about innovation with our people. We wanted them to put creativity into practice and apply it to their everyday lives. How could we show them this was not only possible, but expected of them?” asks Barozzi. 

A trained physicist with a background in research and development and more than 12 years’ service at Cisco, Barozzi had always been inspired by new ideas from outside the HR function. Working with the full support of Cisco’s chief people officer, Francine Katsoudas, they took the bold decision to shut down Cisco’s HR practices for 24 hours on 18 February 2016 and stage a hackathon – a chance to ‘break’ HR as they knew it and rebuild it with innovative people solutions for the company’s 71,000 employees. 

Changing HR in 24 hours

Hackathons are brainstorming events typically used by tech companies to create new products. Facebook is a big proponent of hackathons, holding events every six-to-eight weeks, resulting in successful ideas including the ‘like’ button and Facebook Timeline. In 2015, LinkedIn launched the first ever HR hackathon aimed at increasing employee engagement, using the innovative thinking of 160 interns to come up with alternative solutions to HR problems. Cisco would be the second.

Promotion of the hackathon began three months in advance, with weekly updates to senior executives creating top-level buyin. Six weeks prior to the February launch, the project team started promoting the campaign to participants. They used mobile technology, asking employees questions relating to the hackathon to build a buzz around the event.

On the day, Cisco virtual technologies such as WebEx and TelePresence allowed teams in different locations to collaborate. A tracking app monitored team activity on a leaderboard, while a dedicated #WeAreCisco provided feedback and engagement on social media. In total, Cisco brought together HR teams spanning 39 countries and 16 time zones, in a 24-hour mass brainstorm. This led to more than 100 new solutions covering talent acquisition, onboarding, learning and development and team building – all designed and co-created by Cisco employees.

“The important thing was to break silos and routines,” says Barozzi. “People created solutions in cross-functional teams, piercing the idea that everything starts with the executive team.

“One of the key targets was not to provide people with any direction. We simply asked them to ‘break’ those little, everyday things that stopped them delivering the people experience we want to give.”

For Barozzi, a desired outcome of the experiment was to demonstrate to his people the trust – and expectation – Cisco’s executive leadership had in them to solve problems independently.

“HR loves to talk about huge problems and high-level issues. Let’s start by solving little things and change the environment a step at a time,” he argues.

Hackathon results

Cisco’s hackathon brought about 105 ideas divided into categories such as new-hire onboarding and career development. Successful outcomes are being implemented bi-monthly; one example is a mobile app called YouBelong@Cisco aimed at helping recent hires and their managers navigate the unsettling first few weeks of a new job.

However, Barozzi believes the true takeaway was the engagement and increased creativity of the HR function. Cisco HR demonstrated it can be as agile and adaptive as other functions and is seen as an attractive department to work in. For Barozzi, this is all part of where HR needs to go within an industry of rapid changes, driven by digitisation and competition for talent.

“Organisations today are dealing with a VUCA business world coupled with an exponential rate of change. Second, we have a talent marketplace that has moved from being supply-driven to demand driven. Companies are dealing with a new breed of talent that has the power of choice,” says Barozzi.

At Cisco, it is therefore vital to attract the right candidates with a compelling employer brand. The hackathon helped create an environment where employees feel valued and empowered, plus ideas to attract future talent. 
A further example of an innovative solution includes the ‘Talent Cloud’, Cisco’s workforce ecosystem that combines internal employee data, predictive analytics and market intelligence to allow agile teams to be created , in order to solve specific company goals.

“We’re an adaptive organisation, moving away from the stiff organisational chart to dynamic teams of people allocated to the right job at the right time with the right capabilities,” says Barozzi.

“The idea of the employee is blurring and changing, where people don’t work for, but with a company. Wherever agility is needed that’s where Cisco is going,” he adds.

While hackathons, talent clouds and agility seem like great ideas and undoubtedly enhance engagement, surely it’s harder for HR departments to measure success?

“We moved away from annual reviews because if we continue to measure performance as an individual thing through annual assessments, we won’t succeed,” agrees Barozzi.

“Outcomes are achieved by teams and performance is the sum of an individual, the team they work in and the leader they have. The second element is data. We’re introducing a platform that will provide realtime intelligence on how our teams produce results, execute priorities and how engaged they are,” he adds. 

Personal legacy

And what would constitute personal success? What legacy would Barozzi like to leave?

“The world of work is changing. It’s now about enabling a blend of work and life where people do not think they’re working, but that they’re producing outcomes. I would like Cisco people to be the most wanted in the market and also the toughest to get. The more agile we are, the closer we’ll get to this.”