Sharks can never sleep

Corporations are like sharks, who have to keep moving forward to breathe...or they sink and die.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Corporations are like sharks, who have to keep moving forward to breathe...or they sink and die.

I recently participated in Cisco's 'C-Scape' first virtual forum online; a surprisingly basic attempt at allowing remote attendance to their San Jose California briefing given the sophistication of Cisco's technology (The higher level sessions are archived here).

Cisco, who historically did very well selling pick axes to the miners of the dot com boom (network plumbing), used to have a pretty torridly testosterone focused culture. The battle for CEO John Chambers ear was intense, with a 'strongest man wins' mentality - in 2000 Cisco's market cap was $500 billion making it the most valuable in the world at that point, so the stakes were very high.

Today Chambers, a high profile Republican who was the US election campaign national co-chair and economic and technology advisor for John McCain, sits in a Cisco C level suite called 'The Operating Committee' with his lieutenants.

The transformation from testosterone to collaboration is startling but not entirely surprising given Cisco's leadership in communication technologies. With a current market cap of $132 billion and deep pockets Cisco continues to be one of today's most valuable companies.

Fast Company have an in depth piece about Cisco's transition into a world of transparency - a...

....best possible model for how a large, global business can operate: as a distributed idea engine where leadership emerges organically, unfettered by a central command.

The goal is for customers to replicate Cisco's approach, both philosophically and of course technically. This reminds me of a conversation I had with the Oracle Social CRM team, which is being rolled out internally throughout Oracle in 2009. Exciting and sophisticated though that product appears to be, there is inevitably the reality that it is made in Oracle's image, solving problems which are specific to that unique business culture.

Similarly, Cisco are taking the solution they have crafted for their culture to attempt to sell to other big companies such as GE, AT&T and P&G. This makes perfect sense for Cisco's sales teams, but the reality is that one size does not fit all when it comes to other business cultures and relationships, particularly enterprises that are not in the high tech business. To repeat a great quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos "Base your strategy on things that won't change."

Remaking your company culture and infrastructure in Cisco's image is illogical. The Google approach that 'knowledge is always a good thing, and more of it should be shared' is central to the future given Google's dominance, the open source revolution and management thought leaders such as Gary Hamel and Vineet Nayar.

Knowledge is an increasingly valuable commodity, and as Hamel has pointed out, efficiency at scale is no longer the most pressing challenge for modern organizations. Management styles invented at the beginning of the machine age 100 years ago are out of date, and the financial contagion we are experiencing today is their death knell.

Tim O'Reilly coined the term Web 2.0 in 2004 as the way that business embraces the strengths of the web and use it as a foundational platform. This renaissance of flexible online innovation, with data and knowledge as the driving force, allows us to build applications and services around the unique features of Internet applications.

The network effect created by a culture of collaboration and participation is something which grows in effectiveness in direct proportion to the people using it. In the consumer Web 2.0 world for every ebay or craigslist there are thousands of sites which never gained traction and therefore failed.

Enterprise 2.0 - essentially the business process use of these technologies - should be defined in each unique corporate case by strategic need. Competitive advantage is gained by differentiation; despite the current trend to government intervention and the socialized approach implied by Chambers 'Operating Committee', the reality is that culturally most business entities are unique.

The unique tools Cisco provide - Webex web video conferencing and the wonderfully ultra realistic next generation Telepresence - are primarily for communication, just as Cisco's router business is all about communicating digital network protocol information. The more subtle cultural aspects of collaboration are contextual in their construction and, like designing a meal, require sourcing unique ingredients prior to assembling the finished concoction.

The 'taste' of the offering often defines uptake and enthusiasm by the end users (unless command and control dictates usage), creating a network effect of adoption.

One size fits all is the approach the 'embrace and extend' segments of the market would like us to subscribe to, but the reality is that flexibility, speed and openness are key attributes to enterprise 2.0 success.

Gestating in the background is the semantic web, graphed data platforms that will gradually eliminate the forest of database silos we currently draw from and which I believe is the foundation of the next generation of innovation.

Today in an era of depression era business survival strategies, the sharpest business shark will sniff out the modular IT components that provide the most cost effective counterpoints to their forward thinking business strategy. Seeking ways to keep moving forward unencumbered by legacy machine age era technologies, sharks can never sleep and are always looking for competitive advantage to survive and thrive.

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