The APQC Blog

How Cisco Uses Meaningful Incentives and Crowdsourcing to Jumpstart Innovation

APQC recently spoke to Jennifer Cheung, director of knowledge management at Cisco, about how her organization improved its KM program through innovation and crowdsourcing. Cheung will deliver a presentation titled “Harnessing the Collective IQ and Fostering Innovation” at APQC’s 2014 Knowledge Management Conference April 10-11 in Houston, Texas.

APQC: Cisco has created a wonderful program to foster innovation. What was the driving force or event  that led Cisco to decide it needed a better culture of innovation?

JC: Cisco has prided itself on being focused on innovation since our beginnings. We reinvest billions of dollars into R&D every year to continue the cycle of innovative technology, solutions, and services. This focus on innovation enables our pursuit of having the No. 1 or No. 2 market position in each of our areas of business. We face tough competition every day in our pursuit, which brought us to the question of: How can we innovate to increase our competitive intensity?

APQC: Your program is designed around rewards and recognition. What is the biggest challenge in designing a rewards program?

JC: There are two areas I would focus on when it comes to design:

1) Identifying the behavior you are looking for. This usually starts with recognizing the problem you want to solve and then isolating the moment you believe different actions could be taken to produce different results. If you can follow the journey yourself, you will understand the challenges of each of your stakeholder groups—I like the phrase “staple yourself to the order” to help identify each person who deals with it and how they work through their portion of the process before sending it off to the next step . This will be the foundation for how you redesign or design a new process.

2) Offering a meaningful incentive. Identifying which incentives will resonate with your users means talking to them and understanding what motivates them. One challenge is to be able to focus on both macro and micro incentives – usually only one of them is well identified and communicated. Give them the company’s reason to participate, which tells them how their involvement will help to make a difference. In our case, it was avoiding losing market share to our competition. In addition to the company/macro view you need to provide a micro (or more individually focused) reason to participate. In our case, it was global recognition and a large cash prize, which is well-suited for our competitive sales force.

APQC: The program uses crowdsourcing to determine how Cisco can beat the competition. What’s the biggest challenge to making crowdsourcing work successfully, and what potential downsides did you worry about?

JC: A few challenges come to mind around deploying a global program including logistics, legal terms, localization, and support. Probably the hardest one to address is participation. Crowdsourcing is still relatively new to the enterprise (especially three years ago when we kicked this off), and we were nervous about how the users would receive such a radically different way to participate. The biggest challenge was gaining buy-in from leadership. Traditionally, recipients of rewards are chosen by management and leadership. Utilizing the crowd to vote for who they believe should win was seen as a risk by leadership as their perceived span of control was limited. We took measures to remedy this so that both our user and our leadership requests were met.

APQC: Since Cisco is such a large company, what was the biggest challenge in scaling up your program to be enterprise-wide?

JC: Identifying and gaining the right executive support is a big challenge when running a global program. If we secured this we had the leadership needed to both scale and gain support. Another aspect we included in our planning is identification of local leadership and operations support for each of our geographic regions to run the day-to-day aspects of the program at a local level, which provided both language and cultural perspective (e.g., religious or bank holidays, monetary exchange, taxes, and customs).

APQC: What has been the biggest factor in maintaining the program’s long-term success?

JC: Continuously gaining understanding of our users and stakeholders. We hold quarterly calls with our global operations and program team. The purpose of this call is twofold: 1) to debrief any feedback they want to share about the current quarter (we do this in a stop/start/continue format) and 2) to review a comprehensive timeline for the upcoming quarter. This has given us valuable insight and saved us a lot of headaches! We also schedule a yearly recognition for all the winners from each year so we can ask for their feedback as winners of the program. We maintain a support and feedback alias which we collect and respond to immediately. Most importantly, we keep it fun! We have branded our program with a big, furry, and horned helmet that each winner receives. The helmet has been held up by our CEO, John Chambers, in company-wide meetings. We see it displayed proudly in senior executives’ offices, and our winners take fun photographs with their helmets in interesting places. It keeps it fresh, fun, and relevant!

APQC: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about your latest programs, Competitive Q&A Corner and Competitive Comparison, which focus on expertise location and enabling co-creation of content?

JC: Both are works in progress, but they utilize the same concepts that make our Barbarian program successful: crowdsourcing, user-focused design, and continuous feedback. The Competitive Q&A Corner focuses on locating expertise and is based on an “ask.com” kind of environment. It solves the problem of field sales folks who want to ask a competitive question that they do not know the answer to. Competitive Comparison is also solving a field sales problem, which is to better understand how our products and solutions stack up against the competition. It allows users to compare multiple products and understand where our strengths and weaknesses are. This informs our sales people of how to position and our development teams on where we can continue to improve our products.