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1996 Innovation Optimas Award ProfileBRCisco Systems

October 1, 1996
Welcome to Cisco Systems Inc. Follow me, and hurry! Grab a seat over here, coffee over there, I've got to get back to work — and you've got to start work, please! Now that the entire world, apparently, is hopping on the Information Superhighway, we've got multiprotocol routers, workgroup systems, Ethernet switches, dial-up access servers and software routers to get out the door. The world is waiting on us, and we can't get enough people to wait on the world. You don't know anybody looking for work, do you? If you do, don't have 'em phone me — tell them to get on our Internet site (http://www.cisco.com). OK, gotta go. If you have any questions, hop on the intranet, CiscoWeb. There's an HR homepage that should answer whatever's on your mind. See you, well, when I see you.

That's how one imagines Cisco Systems, the leading global internetworking supplier, right about now. You know all the computer networking going on lately? All the Internet ventures popping up? Those are made possible by Cisco's technology. The San Jose, California-based company, with revenue of $1.9 billion in fiscal year '95, is hot — just ask your investment banker. The demand isn't a problem, the supply is. Cisco's been adding 1,200 to 1,500 jobs a quarter — and is hungry for more. Plus, all these new employees need to be taught the ropes — from HR policy to corporate strategy. And all the old employees (even those old-timers from way back at the start — 1984) still need such items as training and benefits information.

Cisco's unique approach to meeting all these emergency situations has made it the darling of cyberspace. Its HR professionals have quelled the recruitment fires with a Cisco HR homepage on the Internet. The product is a clean, user-friendly, informative and effective Web page. In a nutshell, the site performs the staffing errand of gathering mass resumes, freeing HR for more strategic staffing issues.

But Cisco also has been farming the less flashy side of Internet capabilities, starting up an internal Web site exclusively for Cisco people — an intranet. The HR homepage keeps employees updated on policies and procedures, provides them with contacts in HR and gives employees power — to handle their benefits, check on their company stock, change their addresses, basically tend to all the trivialities HR used to do — freeing the professionals to take on bigger business issues.

All this means a windfall for HR, in quicker hiring, less-expensive recruitment, lower administrative head count, higher HR value-added. If you want to follow suit, follow Cisco's lead. As Barbara Beck, vice president of HR, says: "If you don't leverage the technology, you won't be able to leverage HR's capabilities."

Selling itself on the Web.
Back in 1990, Cisco was really starting to heat up. Between 1990 and 1995, the company ballooned from 250 employees to more than 4,000. Adding this kind of head count demanded quick thinking — and quick hiring. HR looked to the Internet, which was at that time an exclusive pet of techies. This was a perfect audience for Cisco, however, being a supplier of internetworking products — hardware and software devices that link different computer networks together. The first HR run at the Web was just getting all 200 or so job descriptions posted and keeping the list updated weekly as Cisco filled positions or added new jobs. (Mind you, this is the point most companies are just reaching today.)

HR didn't want to just leave it at that, however. The system was too time-consuming for job-seeking surfers, like shuffling paperwork on a computer. A person looking for a software-developer job would have to scroll through all 60 of the software-developer listings to find the one or two that met the person's requirements for location, experience and so on.

So about a year ago, Cisco began shaking up its site, giving its homepage a cyber-redecorating. When entering its realm now, Cisco Connection surfers can peruse product updates, news releases, the Cisco quarterly magazine, and corporate news, which offers tidbits on Cisco's history, acquisitions and investments, and an annual report.

HR's gem is the Cisco Employment Opportunities page, which offers links to:

  • Hot Jobs — job descriptions for hard-to-fill positions
  • Cisco Culture — a look at Cisco worklife, along with media clips of Cisco, and information on compensation and benefits
  • Cisco College — internships and mentoring-program information
  • Community Contributions Program — program details
  • Jobs — job listings.

In the past year, HR has made three important changes to the job-listings section. The first was to allow an interested party to apply online, either by attaching an application electronically and e-mailing it from the site, or completing an online application form and zapping it in.

To offer a more friendly approach, about half a year ago, HR also reconfigured its job page. Now jobs are listed by category — administrative, customer services, engineering, legal, and so on — and by location — San Jose and Santa Cruz, California; Raleigh, North Carolina and other offices. A tailored search program also has been added, allowing users to enter key words describing their desired positions. So, for instance, a software developer in Boston with experience writing Web applications no longer has to scroll though 650 (the latest average) job postings at Cisco. The positions, it's important to note, aren't just technology-based. Salespeople can hit gold too; the site even has an international button that, when clicked on, reveals Cisco jobs in offices in Europe, Australia and Japan.

A page called Hot Jobs is the third crucial change. Here, in a section limited to 20 job descriptions, openings are pitched with a marketing approach. These are the jobs that recruiters are hitting walls on in hiring, so they benefit from a sales tone and more in-depth descriptions.

But this is just the job-opportunities section of Cisco's page. Other areas have benefited from an HR spruce-up as well. As Janet Skadden, director of employment, says: "We tried to make the Web site look and feel like the culture of the company so that people not only see the jobs but also get excited about the company." Hence the new sections on Cisco's culture and values, compensation and benefits programs and product information. There's even the college page, despite the fact that less than 5% of new hires come from colleges — internetworking is so esoteric most hires have been out of school long enough to specialize. Cisco realizes that by targeting college students (Cisco managers even work with Stanford University, the founders' alma mater, to help define the curriculum for internetworking) the company has a better chance of staying in a person's mind five years into his or her career. Thus, the college page offers up the recruiting schedule at the few dozen campuses Cisco visits. "If you don't have something [on the Web for students], the awareness drops," says Skadden. Of course, thanks to Cisco's aggressive marketing, awareness levels are likely to do nothing but rise.

Selling the site.
We've all heard about how cheap it is to recruit online, as compared to advertising in a newspaper. It costs less, and it reaches more people. Skadden realized she had a valuable tool in the Internet, and she knew the Cisco page was good enough to entice interest. So her strategy became geared toward making sure people saw it, and used it — now she devotes about 25% of her work time to marketing and promotions for the Web site. "When you used to advertise jobs, you'd go to a local newspaper, and you could list maybe 30 jobs in a full-page ad," she says. "Now all our advertising pretty much just says we have hundreds of job openings in these areas — go look at the Web."

The company has been advertising its Web address everywhere. It's in newspapers and on the radio. Cisco sets up booths at many of Northern California's art and wine festivals, passing out cards labeled "http://www.cisco.com" to direct people to the company's Web site.

Perhaps most creative is Cisco's "Friends" ad, which has run a good half-year in newspapers and radio spots, with the tag line, "We know where your friends are." The sentiment is, basically, Cisco has a lot of jobs — if you know somebody at Cisco, send them your resume and network with them. But if you don't know anyone at Cisco, go to the Web page, fill out an online form, and HR will connect you with "a friend" who does the same kind of work as you.

It's not just talk. Every night HR downloads new entries and matches them with employees through a database of Cisco volunteers. The volunteer receives information on the candidate, phones the person up, chats, answers questions, then e-mails the recruiters that the person had been "befriended" and lets the recruiters go from there. If the candidate is hired, the volunteer gets the referral bonus. "For the most part, the volunteer is just basically there to sell the company," says Skadden. "Some people won't go to work someplace unless they know someone who can say it's a good place to work." The Web page received 64,000 hits from curious surfers in the ad's first six weeks. Several thousand people filled out the application to be matched with a Cisco employee. Many of the buddies stay in touch: One compensation manager at Cisco still chats regularly with an outside compensation person she was matched with, even though the woman hasn't been hired on.

Aside from luring people to the Cisco page through radio and newspapers, HR also uses perhaps a more appropriate medium: the Internet itself. Skadden's strategy has a get-'em-when-they're-not-looking spin. While countless companies clog the major job boards on the Internet, like Career Mosaic and Monster Board, they only reach people who are actively looking for a job. But millions of others surf the Net each day — and if you can advertise on a popular, nonemployment site and provide a hyperlink to your Web site, you may just hook some more candidates.

Take, for instance, "The Dilbert Zone," cartoonist Scott Adam's strip satirizing the trivialities of corporate life. The Dilbert Zone Web site receives 1.5 million hits per day. And each of those visitors has seen a Cisco recruitment ad placed within the Zone, with a link back to the Cisco Connection employment page. People who go into The San Jose Mercury News online site also run into a Cisco link, which floats throughout the paper — sometimes on the front page, sometimes at the end of an article.

Web recruitment quadruples response.
All this Internet marketing works: Just a year ago, HR was receiving 5,000 to 7,000 resumes a quarter through various channels. Today, the department receives 25,000 per quarter. Although Cisco currently can't track which resumes come through its Web page — that's on the to-do list — most HR staffers agree the HR homepage is a powerful recruitment magnet. "I think a good deal of the reason for [the increase in resumes] is we've done a lot of creative stuff through the Internet," says Skadden. "And of course, recruiting is a numbers game right? You've got to get a lot of resumes to find the people you want, so we're trying to find them in nontraditional ways."

You'd think the sheer volume might make HR's job a bit more difficult. If Cisco were still using its old filing system, the paper piles would make recruiting a serious nettle. "The way most companies operate — and Cisco did this a couple of years ago — they get a paper-copy resume, it usually sits in a file in a recruiter's office, and [hiring managers] aren't able to share resumes," says Deepjot Chhabra, manager of HR systems and technology. "[Recruiters] would tend to go through the resumes that are accessible and then place an ad or go to an agency. It costs money to do that."

Things are different now, and recruiting actually is easier with Cisco's Resumix applicant tracking system up and running. All resumes — those received by e-mail and those received by snail mail — immediately enter Resumix. Resumix uploads the information, sends the candidate a response card, and the resume is accessible immediately to recruiters. The system allows HR professionals to see who has been interviewed, what the recruiter's feedback was, even sort out demographic data required by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, such as percent of women and minorities interviewed.

Resumix also has keyword-search ability, so if an HR person wants to hire an engineer with local area network (LAN) experience, he or she need only enter the words and — presto! — the system pops up only resumes of the desired candidates (Resumix also has in its vocabulary nearly 30 other words to describe an engineer with LAN experience, so those who don't use the magic words aren't screened out). With this system, a recruiter can sift through the 58,905 (last count) active resumes electronically in the time it would take to go through a handful of paper resumes. Has it squeezed the cycle time between recruiting and hiring candidates? "I'm convinced it has," says Beck. "I remember how long it took before and how long it takes now."

Plus, the majority of resumes gleaned through the Internet are high-level people. The technology provides a screening process of sorts. Says Skadden: "The quality of candidates we're getting is self-fulfilling. If they can get into the Web and find us, they're probably the kind of people we're looking for. If they can't, they're probably the people we don't want."

Site development — equal time for intranet and Internet.
Recruitment isn't all that's on Cisco's mind these days. Getting the most out of its employees is also a priority. Most HR departments today, despite a valiant struggle, are still stuck in the transactional mode. Most employees today, despite all the attempts at empowerment, are still forced to wade through managerial layers for what basically amounts to permission slips. Cisco's intranet has pushed the company past both these boundaries.

Through CiscoWeb, employee communications become easy and instantaneous. Handbooks, directories, even videos can be placed once on the Net and updated as necessary, rather than reprinted by the thousands — costly and inefficient. So crucial is the intranet to everyday operations that every Cisco employee has access to a terminal — even the folks on the production floor.

Says John Radford, director HR business operations: "The whole thing is focused on employee communications and productivity in my point of view. It's absolutely our key tool for our HR department."

On the internal HR Web page, an employee will find:

  • General information — company information, plus a list of HR contacts
  • Employment — access to internal job opportunities
  • Organization management development — lists of training and development classes
  • Systems and technologies — opportunity for employees to update addresses, etc.
  • Employee and community relations — HR information on policies, practices, procedures, community involvement
  • Benefits information — all benefits programs are online
  • Anything new or exciting HR wants employees to know about is written on a bright yellow "stickie" of sorts, which flashes "NEW." (A recent stickie promoted a Nissan Infiniti vehicle-purchase program.)

The amazing feature of this intranet is that these aren't just canned pages, filled with data — the site isn't an online encyclopedia. Most of these pages are interactive, allowing employees to complete HR activities on their own. For instance, when an employee updates his or her address in the systems and technologies page, the address is automatically updated throughout the Cisco organization, without anyone else doing any data entry.

In the organization management-development page, an employee not only can review the training classes offered, but also can read what will be covered, check if there's an opening left, enroll — and an e-mail will be sent automatically to apprise his or her manager of the fact. "The [intranet] has given employees access to information, so they can look it up and deal with it rather than have to try to get an answer," says Radford. "It makes it a lot easier for employees."

CiscoWeb aids new-hire orientation.
The internal site even acts as an electronic buddy of sorts for new employees — lending a crucial hand in integrating and assisting the 100 to 125 new workers Cisco adds each week. A confused new kid doesn't have to wait until he or she can flag down a busy boss to ask a question. Instead, the new employee can log on to Cisco's new hire survival guide — which contains policies and procedures, forms new employees need to fill out, a help list of contact people and a list detailing Cisco's services, culture and training.

The new hire survival guide walks employees through their basic needs, but there's still a catch: "A company like Cisco that's growing as quickly as it is, is very difficult for employees to navigate through," says Beck. "We hired thousands of people in the last six months. They join the company, learn what the organization looks like, and three weeks later we've hired 400 [more] people. Everybody's moved around, so who does what in the organization?"

An organizational navigation project will soon take care of that question. The system will allow employees to go online to answer for themselves questions beyond basic policy. Beck says employee surfers will be able to find out what each of the business units' initiatives are, what the corporate function's initiatives are, and receive an organization chart complete with photos of each organization's head. An employee who's unsure where to send expense reports will be able to double-click on the finance icon, then double-click on an expense-reports icon to find the right individual.

Still, most at Cisco agree that benefits is the most useful area, as far as keeping HR out of transactions. The page offers links, for instance, to all of Cisco's vendors. An employee can connect to the homepage of Aetna Health Plans Inc., Cisco's indemnity plan administrator, to search for a new physician; or Fidelity Investments Inc., the 401(k) plan administrator, to check up on savings. This July, Cisco introduced open enrollment over the Web, which previously had been done over the phone with a more tedious voice-response system. Now the workforce can elect dental and medical coverage from their desks. "The strategy here was self-preservation," laughs Beck. "We're trying to get out of paperwork processing. Unless there's a real value that HR can offer, we don't need to touch a piece of paper. Anything [HR normally does] that the employees can do themselves, we want them to do."

Such nifty feats have been made possible by a technology called online transactions systems, a move Chhabra has helped support. "In the past, we've been very content-driven on the [intranet], so employees could look up policies or forms to change supervisors or what community events are coming up," he says. "We want to become more transaction-oriented on the Web."

Chhabra's current project in this vein is enhancing manager access to online forms. For instance, right now, when managers want to change an employee's salary, they have to file a personnel-action notice — paper-based — which has to be signed by several levels. When the forms go online (any day now), the manager will be able to pull up the form on a computer, digitally sign it and shoot it electronically to the next level, until it's finally routed back into the HR system. Privacy is maintained through intricate online security measures. When completed, the process will bring Cisco closer to its goal of becoming a paperless company — a goal Beck projects will be near completion within the next year.

Radford is a big booster of the company's intranet and the gains it will make for HR: "The Internet's getting all the publicity. It's hot; everybody's got homepages. But the real leverage for companies right now is what they do with their intranets. All the development, all the big dollars, all the productivity to be gained right now is what companies are doing internally with the intranets."

Chhabra says although he handles the technology of such HR innovations, the ideas are generally team-generated. He's always open to thoughts from non-techies about how to make their jobs more efficient. "It can be something I think of or something they think of," he says. "But the end result is that I want to get the mindset in our managers and HR about what technology can do for them."

Exactly: Getting HR in the mindset of what technology can do for them. It's why Cisco's recruiting numbers have soared, why its employees are empowered and why its HR department is a strategic player. HR at Cisco has leveraged Internet technology both internally and externally — and is always looking to do more.

Personnel Journal, October 1996, Vol. 75, No. 10, pp. 28-34.