Can Cisco and Project Squared Drive Innovation?
Several of us at UCStrategies attended last week’s Cisco Collaboration Summit, and while the details are still largely under NDA, we are able to express some high level thoughts. I already shared some takeaways and visuals on my blog, but there’s a lot more to talk about. For this audience, the big story was Project Squared, which colleague Blair Pleasant has already posted about. Blair covered the ground nicely there, and I’ll just make a few references to that here. Several UC Experts were also at Unify’s recent analyst event where they launched Circuit, the successor to another “project,” namely Ansible.
If you think there’s a trend happening here, you’re absolutely right, and it has everything to do with how the UC&C space is evolving. I’ve already said my piece about Circuit, and both companies are focusing on the right problem, namely how to make the collaboration process more effective. Clearly, this is harder to do than it looks, mainly because end users – all of us – are inundated with platforms and applications that all promise to make our lives easier, but it’s really hard to separate the killer apps from all the noise.
With that, I’m going to move on from Project Squared and focus on this bigger challenge with a taste of Cisco’s own medicine. The lock note presentation from the summit was given by Steven Johnson, a renowned author and PBS host who has a lot to say about innovation. He was new to me – that’s what happens when you don’t watch TV – but I really enjoyed what he shared with us. The talk was built around his book/TV series, How We Got to Now, and as he spoke about forces that drive innovation, I started applying that to how well Cisco is doing the same to foster collaboration with their customers.
This leads to the basic question as to whether all this tremendous energy and investment that Cisco is throwing at collaboration exemplifies the learning and best practices that Steven Johnson shared with us about innovation. Over the course of his talk, Steven honed in on six factors that characterize what it takes to drive innovation, and much of this applies to the process of collaboration itself. I’m going to address each one now in terms of what Cisco is doing in the collaboration space, especially in terms of how well they understand what the marketplace really needs.
1. The Slow Hunch
This is the idea that true innovation takes a long time, and there are almost always many more failures than successes along the way. The core idea starts around a common problem, and the innovator – inventor, really – sticks with that and keeps trying different things until a workable solution emerges. They are never defeated by blind alleys, and keep persevering because they fervently believe the world needs this solution. Steven used the Internet itself as a prime example, but closer to home, there are many other cases that fit the bill – such as VoIP and mobility. These technologies have been evolving for decades, but once the technologies mature and become demand-driven, we get ubiquitous offerings like Skype and the iPhone.
In Cisco’s case, they have been focused on collaboration for a long time, and had their share of hits and misses. Think about first generation Telepresence, Quad, WebEx Social, Flip, Cius, etc. All of these technologies/products have a role to play in providing a great collaboration experience, but none have had the kind of success Cisco was hoping for. When you consider their collaboration roadmap today, they have clearly moved on and taken the best of those pieces and adapted them to how the market is evolving. That sure sounds like the “slow hunch” to me, and if you stick with focusing on the problem long enough, eventually you get it right.
2. Blind Spots
This is the idea that when an inventor works solo, he/she gets so wrapped up in the specific problem, they don’t see the forest from the trees. A great example is kerosene, which was extracted in large part from shale oil. In the 1850s, this was a big deal, since it was easier and cheaper to produce than whale oil, which is what powered our cooking and lighting needs before electricity. A big byproduct of this process was crude oil, but since there was no use for it at the time, it was dumped as waste into waterways and salt mines. Who knew?
This, of course, is the essence of collaboration, and that’s why Cisco is in this business. They view collaboration as a way for enterprises to avoid those blind spots by making it easy for teams to focus on problems rather than leaving things to isolated individuals who only have a singular view of both problem and solution.
During the summit, Jonathan Rosenberg did a great job breaking down the collaboration process into four stages – discussion, connecting, sharing and recall. I’m not going to explain these here, but the point is that with a deep understanding of the nature of collaboration you can make the process seamless, hence minimizing the blind spot problem.
3. The Liquid Network
Steven’s focus here was on the rise of coffee houses in 18th century Europe, which served as public meeting forums for the open exchange of information and ideas. They were liquid in the literal sense by serving caffeinated beverages that stimulated lively discussions, but also in the figurative sense that people could freely come and go, and you never knew who was going to drop by.
There are clear parallels of course to the Internet world, but Steven’s point was that this open environment was a great proving ground for new ideas which gave forth all types of innovation and collaboration. This is exactly what Cisco has in mind with Project Squared, which is basically a persistent virtual meeting room, where you can set up collaboration sessions on the fly, inviting anyone you want by email and away you go. You can leave whenever you want, and you’re free to join any other open session that catches your fancy. That’s the liquid network in the 21st century, and on that front, Cisco definitely gets it.
This is related to the above point, but needs its own space. The idea here is that if you surround yourself with like-minded people, the results will be predictable. True innovation doesn’t happen that way – you need multiple viewpoints on the problem set, whether it be from different genres, disciplines, age groups, cultures, genders, social standing, etc.
If left unchecked, the Internet will only breed conformity, and fortunately, we’re not there yet. I’m fearful that time will come, but that’s another conversation. One thing that really struck me during the summit was how as an organization, Cisco has embraced this thinking. Their management ranks are definitely trending younger, and there’s a lot of young blood with great vision and a firm grasp about how customer needs are evolving. They seem to have a strong mix of leadership and industry expertise now across all stages of the collaboration value chain – hardware, software, cloud, mobility, etc. That kind of diversity is essential to stay on the leading edge of innovation, and it looks to me like Cisco has that now in spades.
Steven Johnson used Twitter for his example here, with the idea being that this is a fast, cheap and efficient way to disseminate ideas on a massive scale. Almost any form of social media these days fits that description, but these platforms aren’t really about collaboration.
Project Squared, however, is totally about collaboration, and in essence, it’s a mobile collaboration platform. You can use Squared from any endpoint, but it’s really about mobility, and when it comes to doing things on a large scale, that’s where you need to be. Sure, you can use Squared to share ideas, but the objective is to use it for group work. Since it is a persistent environment, it caters perfectly to the always-on mantra of today’s knowledge workers.
In that regard, Square fills a specific need for a platform that is always there, a secure space where all your interactions are archived and accessible. So, whether you want to collaborate in real time with co-workers, or chime in at 3 a.m. from halfway around the world, the platform is ready when you are. I think that fits nicely with how Steven Johnson views innovation, in which case Cisco comes out looking strong.
6. Big Collaboration
The final factor personifies the big payoff Cisco is striving for. The bigger the scale of collaboration, the bigger the results will be for the business. Of course this translates into more sales for Cisco, but we’re talking about the network effect here for innovation. An old school view sees innovation as being local and mostly on a small scale. This is a product of the times when ideas were costly and slow to disseminate. Today, especially with the cloud, innovation spreads quickly and impacts markets quickly – just ask Apple. Scale is really not an obstacle, so a great idea for one person can become a great idea for millions overnight.
This is a powerful idea for enterprises to embrace when they invest in collaboration technologies, especially those with large, globalized workforces. With tools like Project Squared, WebEx and Telepresence, Cisco can make big collaboration a reality today. Of course, they can’t do it alone, and they gave us some proof points to show their willingness to collaborate with others to make this better for everyone.
One example was their announcement with Mozilla to open source the H.264 video codec to help make video WebRTC compatible. Video is a core pillar of their collaboration vision, and they seem intent on making it pervasive via standards that everyone can access. Another example is the integration they have now between their Collaboration Cloud and Microsoft Exchange. While these two companies are mortal enemies, Cisco recognizes it will be easier to set up meetings on their collaboration platform when integrated with Active Directory. That’s not something you likely would have heard from Cisco a few years ago, but that’s the nature of today’s UC&C space. To conclude, I’d say that’s as good an example as any to show that they understand the collaboration opportunity, and how Steven Johnson’s ideas provide a great roadmap to drive innovation for their customers.