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leadership advice

Binary code business peopleBenjamin Haas

The future of work isn't some far-off fantasy time of robot secretaries and three-day weeks – it's here, says Nitin Kawale, president and chief executive officer of Cisco Systems Canada Inc. Canadians are ready to take a leap forward in productivity by using technology to work smarter and by collaborating more. But businesses are holding them back, he warned in a presentation this week at the Toronto Board of Trade. He explained why in an interview with The Globe and Mail's Wallace Immen.

Why do you say Canadian employers are hindering their employees?

Today's world is connected and mobile as never before. Canadians in their consumer life are extremely familiar with collaborative technology that could make them more productive. Statistics that Cisco gathered in a global survey prove we're among the best in the world at adopting social media and using technology to collaborate. But businesses aren't moving nearly as quickly. Here's the irony: the same Canadians who are so tuned in to collaboration are the employees of these companies.

A lot of corporations are focusing on improving productivity because our productivity is among the worst in the G20. But they're missing evidence that real innovation comes from collaboration. If we can apply that collaboration to business, it will mean a much faster trajectory to improve productivity.

What can organizations do immediately to improve employee effectiveness?

The social media and mobile devices are critical. In their personal life, people buy, get information and communicate with their friends in many ways on a variety of devices, but many employers don't allow them to use their own devices or access social media at work. The next generation is not going to tolerate this and companies are going to have to enable people to collaborate any time and anywhere. Employers that don't already have a framework to facilitate that should make it a priority to establish one.

I know that organizations still worry about which websites employees are looking at, but my advice is why not just have an appropriate code of conduct and if someone breaks it, you deal with it, rather than restricting access to everything.

You've developed some interesting Web-based tools. What have you found effective?

We have our own version of YouTube that's developed into a resource that gives employees access to 25,000 video blogs and advice on topics.

We've got our own version of Wikipedia called Ciscopedia that's built from employee submissions. It's not very difficult to implement – we built that ourselves a couple of years ago – but there are now off-the-shelf programs you can get to build your own in-house collaboration.

Our internal online discussion forums have developed 6,000 threads and get 22,000 messages a quarter.

And there are video-conferencing facilities we call TelePresence and virtual conferencing.

You've gone global with virtual conferencing. How is that working?

We started off with video teleconferencing in large boardrooms; now we're deploying video in all the managers' offices. And we're empowering employees to use video from their home offices. We find it dramatically changes how we interact with customers and co-workers, and how we solve problems. It has helped us raise customer and employee satisfaction scores.

It also can result in big cost savings. The old paradigm had our technical people travelling across the country regularly. It might be that they'd do several meetings on a trip, but most often it was just one customer visit and the travel would take two or three days out of their week. We set a policy that employees don't travel for meetings any more, but set up video meetings with clients or staff in other cities.

At first some people complained. We said that if someone had a reason to make an exception to the policy, we'd look at it. Everyone who did come to us asking for a face-to-face meeting we approved, but very few did. Once they tried it, they embraced the idea of meeting by video because they were getting more done.

Now, we've started doing virtual annual sales conferences. Rather than fly thousands of people to a city and put them up in hotels, we bring the employees in each city into meeting rooms connected by video for presentations. We still have social events for the employees in each city after the video conference sessions. With that we save 90 per cent of the costs and people still get the social interaction.

It's hard to argue with a saving like that. We redeploy the 90-per-cent savings for product development, employee development, and engagement programs – although some employers might just want to add it to their bottom line.

Can employers accept the concept of a virtual work force?

Employers are going to have to get over the idea that people aren't productive unless you can see them. Work is no longer nine to five and offices are going to be less important as people have the ability to interact virtually. If you provide the right tools when everyone is so connected, it shouldn't matter where you work or when you work. If employers focus on how much work is being produced, rather than how many hours people are putting in, it's a very self-correcting thing.

But you have to get the right balance for your company culture. Human interaction is still important for building relationships and propagating the company's culture. You can't develop a corporate culture on a mobile device, so you have to balance that with personal interaction.

So your advice to employers is?

Move fast, because you're already late. You can't avoid the changes because they've already happened. I think part of the resistance to change is human rather than technology. Canadians have a reputation around the world for being conservative – which sometimes serves us well. But these collaborative trends are inevitable, and I believe that waiting like students to the last second before the exam to study makes no sense; we have to be in front of the trend.

It's also essential if you look at the demographic challenge: 23 per cent of government workers are already in the position to retire at any time and the private sector faces the same trend. Even if organizations can attract the next generation of tech-savvy workers, many won't be able to hire one for one. So to stay competitive and be more productive, they will have to depend on having a work environment that allows people to be as collaborative as possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.