As change has become a mantra in the business world, executive responsibilities and job titles are evolving quickly. Our Emerging Roles series will ask Canadians about how their jobs are changing.
New title: Vice-president, industry and business transformation
Who: Rick Huijbregts, Cisco. Since 2009. Also the general manager for smart and connected communities since 2008.
What is your role at Cisco?
I have two roles. As vice-president, industry and business transformation, I orchestrate a team of industry experts and thinkers who we work with to make Cisco more relevant to our customers. The essence of it is to see how we can move out of the server room into the boardroom and have conversations with business decision makers about solving real business issues and problems through innovation and technology. We do this in a variety of industries, like health care and financial services.
This is where my second role comes in. As general manager for smart and connected communities, I do the same thing specifically for the real estate industry.
How did your role come to be at Cisco?
As a company, it’s almost like a natural evolution. We’re very large, worldwide and in Canada, in selling high-quality products and services in technology. In order for us to solve real problems beyond technology issues, we need to understand how we can help our customers innovate and become more productive and effective contributors to the Canadian economy. All of the products and services that we provide are the foundations for business process redesign, improvements and productivity.
Real estate is the nearest and dearest to my heart. This traditionally is an industry that hasn’t really adopted technology much to innovate itself. We look at how we can bring that industry into the 21st century and construct and manage buildings using the latest technologies. It eliminates costs, drives productivity and creates experiences for the users of real estate that we’ve never had before.
By looking at technology as a foundational component of any built environment, we can start to create spaces that are much more efficient and contribute to the productivity and innovation of any user of those spaces. We’ve been working with an ecosystem of partners that we have never had working relationships with before, like engineering firms and construction companies, to change the game of designing and building buildings.
It really goes back to the core of a building. A typical building has lots of different systems in it, like air conditioning, heating, security, and lighting. They tend to be all proprietary, reside within their own networks, and tend to not to be able to communicate with one another. All these systems are becoming smarter and more complex, and we’re looking at building information networks, or backbones, that become the foundation for all of these systems.
Instead of having solo proprietary systems in buildings, we have a multitude of systems that all speak the same language. They’re open and communicate over one information network. It allows for much more efficient management in operations of buildings.
Why real estate?
Canada, and particularly the Toronto area, is one of the most active construction cities in the Western world. Typically when it’s going well, you would think an industry doesn’t need to innovate – they’re waiting for when it’s tough, and then they have to scramble to do different things. We’re now finding ourselves in a marketplace where there’s an appetite for innovation to build partnerships.
For example, we just announced our partnership with the Pan Am Games. There’s a lot of infrastructure going to be built that will help the region’s economic, social and environment opportunities. Being part of that as a business leader, in addition to being a provider of products and services, will help us move those markets. We have great relationships with big engineering design firms and construction companies where we get together and co-create solutions and ideas that will push the envelope.
What do you do on a typical day?
Lots of different things – no day is alike, which is great. I’m very focused around two types of customers: Our internal customers, which are basically the people who are having the relationships with our end customers and our sales teams.
That takes me out to the street, if you will, to deal with external customers, particularly with companies who we traditionally don’t have strong relationships with: CEOs of real estate companies, or construction companies, that probably never historically thought of technology as important or relevant to them.
What is your background and how did it prepare you for this role?
My background is in real estate − I’m not a technologist. I started in construction management. I’m from a construction family, so I was just destined to move into the business. This was in Europe, in the Netherlands. After studying construction management, I went on to study architecture and real estate development in the Netherlands. I worked for a little while in real estate, and discovered just how inefficient this industry is and how much waste there is. That triggered me to continue to go back to school. I did my PhD in real estate investment and development and its intersection with technology at the Harvard Design School. It was really where architecture, design and real estate all collides with trends and technology and allows us to build better buildings in a smarter way.
For a little while, I ran the Center for Design Informatics, a private sector-funded research organization within the Harvard Design School that focuses on innovation and productivity.
It was there that I met a handful of Cisco people, particularly from our own corporate real estate division, that were looking at ways to make our own spaces smarter and more productive. Cisco operates out of almost 20 million square feet worldwide, so you can imagine a lot of resources are allocated to managing and operating and paying for the space. They were looking at ways to use their own technologies to make smarter and better spaces.
After having had Cisco as a customer in my research role, I ended up joining Cisco about five years ago. First in our corporate real estate group, then I moved to sales in emerging markets, and then sales in the U.S. So my background is not in technology – I’m the last person to ask what a router or switch is.
What have you learned in your role?
The only thing that is certain is change, and that we as a company are leading the way. At our own organization are very adept at appreciating the impact of technology, and we therefore have to continuously reinvent ourselves. Especially with the economic situation, we see our customers having an appetite for the same attitude.
The IT world is very different from real estate or health care, and they’ll change at their own pace, but I believe that by building the right relationships within the industries, governments and universities, we can create a platform of innovation where a company like Cisco can be a real pivotal player in moving and changing markets. What I’ve learned is that where in the past we were relegated to IT departments because that’s what we sell, if you bring the right expertise to the table and you have the right appreciation of what your customers need, we can have a much greater impact as an organization in the marketplace than if we just sold devices, products or services.
Why should other organizations create a role such as yours?
I think more and more there’s a focus on business development, which includes thinking outside the box at any company and being able to look beyond next week or next year. Every organization is good at doing something, but if we really start to look at the sum of us together and looking at new ways of working together, we can do so many more exceptional things in the marketplace. That’s not just good for us as companies, but good for the communities and countries we work in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.