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Connect, Communicate, Collaborate

Cisco’s productivity software combines social networking with other forms of communication.
March 22, 2011

Cisco Systems started out connecting computers, but today, connecting people is just as important to the company. It has created collaboration products that merge multiple communication tools, including phone, video, and a corporate-friendly form of social networking. Murali Sitaram, the Cisco vice president who oversees these products, recently spoke with Tom Simonite, Technology Review’s IT editor for hardware and software, about why Cisco believes it can boost other companies’ productivity.

TR: Isn’t Cisco a computer network company? Why make social collaboration software?

Sitaram: After [the Internet became] the protocol for all communications between computers, we did the same for human-to-human interactions: with IP telephony we reduced the cost of voice calls, and enabled video calling, too. When people can communicate, they start to collaborate. Our latest goal is now to meld in unique, powerful ways the different types of communication that we provide to help them do that.

How are you doing that?

With Quad, a product that brings all our communication tools together. It is a Web-based application that allows people within an organization to create profiles, share information through wikis and microblogs, and create a professional social network within your company. It’s a powerful tool for the information transactions you need to get your job done; for the last 20 years, knowledge workers have had nothing more sophisticated than cc and bcc on e-mail to manage how information is shared.

Quad is also integrated with real-time communications. When you access a person’s profile, you can send an e-mail or a microblog message, have an instant-message conversation, or click to have your phone call them.

Quad contains elements very similar to personal social networks like Facebook and Twitter. What do they have to offer the enterprise?

All of us have become used to seamless many-to-many communications from the consumer world: Facebook and Twitter have perfected techniques to lower the cost and barriers to communication. We need that power in the enterprise, so taking inspiration from them is a natural shift.

How does that type of social communication tool have to change to fit into the workplace environment?

We have to deploy them with policy and security features to meet the requirements of the enterprise; we are also connecting them with real-time, synchronous communication such as voice and video.

What about people who need to collaborate with people outside their company?

Already you can include outside contacts in Quad so you can use it to initiate a real-time communication with them. We are also working on a feature that makes it possible to create communities in Quad that share information to external users.

I might use that to extend my network to include my supply chain. Both internal and external users could be in that group, but external people would have access only to the information for that community and nothing else. You can create rich connections with outsiders but still rely on the security of your information. In some ways, this is similar to the concept that Facebook is developing around groups.

Is it possible to measure the effect that Quad has had?

My group—a few hundred engineers plus product management and others—has moved for most practical purposes away from e-mail to using the Quad. Thanks to that, our e-mail traffic over the last six months has [been] reduced by about 38 percent. We also reduced by about 42 percent the amount of storage we use. Now there’s one place where we can share everything; we don’t have to store copies of every file in our in-boxes.

Aren’t some people resistant to using social networking-like technology at work?

We are working with about 50 customers using Quad at this time, and each has a different level of acceptance of the technology. People are not going to move away from e-mail en bloc to something new within a year, but we think this shift is going to happen in the next three to four years. I think that today we are at the very peak of e-mail usage; from now on, it will decline.

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