A few years ago, Cisco Systems Inc. hosted about 20,000 employees at its Global Sales Experience meeting in Las Vegas and treated them to a private Aerosmith concert. This year, 20,000 employees went to work and attended the meeting by watching video screens as executives gave speeches and handed out year-end awards.
Did Cisco get the same bang for the buck by hosting corporate America’s biggest virtual meeting?
“Yes,” says Angie Smith, manager of Cisco’s Global Sales Experience. “This was a huge cultural shift for us, and logistically it was amazing. But, absolutely, it worked. It was a leap of faith because we knew we were pushing the boundaries of what technology could do.”
The logistics of the virtual conference were daunting. Cisco and the experience marketing firm of George P. Johnson worked for more than a year to organize, get executive buy-in and execute the event.
The conference featured 88 hours of consecutive sessions over four days, running multiple times across 24 time zones. The 20,000 employee/participants were located in 104 locations at 600 Cisco sites, in 620 conference rooms. Fifty-eight keynote addresses were given by CEO John T. Chambers and other key sales executives via Cisco IPTV, a private, Web-based broadcasting network. In addition, there were 10 breakout sessions featuring WebEx-enabled sessions and pre-recorded video with interactive chat sessions. There were also 124 executive chat sessions between Cisco executives and attendees.
The meeting relied heavily on Cisco’s own technology. In addition to the company’s use of its IPTV network and WebEx webinar tool, the conference was facilitated by the use of Cisco’s security software, virtual private networks and unified communication tools such as TelePresence, which is used for videoconferencing. In addition, three service providers were employed to host content and create interactive virtual environments: inExpo Virtual Platform, GPJ Global LINKS Platform and JUXT Interactive.
The conference had three corporate goals, Smith says. The first was to communicate fiscal priorities, initiatives, opportunities and goals. The second was to motivate employees with the company’s vision, strategies and execution. The third was to recognize the employees’ sales accomplishments.
Two other objectives also were central to the decision to hold a virtual meeting: reducing costs as well as shrinking the company’s carbon footprint.
“We reduced costs by 90 percent,” Smith says. “We didn’t have to fly in 20,000 people, feed them and put them up in hotels. So right off, that was a huge success and very important to the senior management during these tough economic times. In terms of our carbon footprint, it was amazing. We saved 211 million airplane miles by not flying our employees into one location from all around the world. That resulted in a carbon dioxide offset of 84,400 metric tons.”
One challenge planners of virtual meetings face is overcoming the isolation virtual attendees feel when they aren’t in the same room. Smith asserts that Cisco’s state-of-the-art technology helped bring a needed intimacy to the virtual meeting. She points out that TelePresence creates lifelike, immersive experiences using advanced visual, audio and collaboration technologies. “It’s literally like looking across the table at someone — except they’re across the world,” Smith says. “That certainly helped.”
Another challenge Cisco faced was minimizing distractions, and keeping virtual attendees focused and engaged. “We made the meetings shorter, and we did the training a bit differently,” Smith explains. They altered the program to counter any urge to multi-task. Presentations were cut down from an hour-and-a-half to seven to 12 minutes. “It took some doing to deliver the overall messages in that short period of time,” she says. “We had to make it content-rich but user-friendly.”
Cisco also added several activities that encouraged audience participation. The company worked with Newport Beach Calif.-based JUXT Interactive Inc. to create The Threshold, an alternate reality game. The Threshold served as a team-building engagement strategy that encouraged employees to get deeply involved in the content and work together; it also provided some much-needed entertainment. Similar to a treasure hunt, the game attracted more than 13,000 members of the Cisco sales team, who worked in teams for several hours a day, digging through the contents of the meeting to solve the mystery and win the game, along with prizes.
“That was highly successful,” Smith says. “It brought teams together and it tied in the programs.”
Since a vital part of the meeting was to acknowledge and give a virtual pat on the back to high achievers, Cisco set up a Sales Recognition Winners Zone, where the top 10 percent of sales people and other achievements were honored with a social badge award ceremony and exclusive executive chat sessions, which were broadcast in 30-minute cycles over the course of 72 hours.
Because the virtual meeting was so atypical of Cisco’s previous meetings, select executives extensively polled participants and other executives post-conference to determine whether the goals and expectations were met. “The content and speaker scores were on par with previous meetings,” Smith says. And in almost every area, satisfaction scores were on par or better with previous years’ metrics. The lowest scores were in the areas of socialization and awards recognition, which lowered the overall satisfaction score this year.
“Our sales associates, on average, are 39 years old; 82 percent are male, and they’re sales people, so by nature they are very social,” Smith explains. “They wanted to be super entertained and engaged. They didn’t find that the virtual meeting offered them that. They are social and they enjoy going to the meetings, putting names to faces and then going out and having a beer. Plus, our executives missed out on that interaction as well. I know our CEO enjoys meeting people, shaking their hands, thanking them and getting their feedback. He feeds off that energy as much as the sales staff.”
Taking that feedback into account, plans are already underway for the next company-wide sales meeting, which, again, will be nothing like Cisco has ever done before. “It’s going to be a true hybrid-style meeting,” Smith says. “We are going to be virtual [and provide] live social engagement. We will get people together so they can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their associates. It just won’t be all 20,000 together.” And, to bolster the amount of recognition for high-achievers, at each site there will be a Cisco executive to personally hand out the rewards, shake hands and take pictures.
“We will use the virtual meetings to get messages out, because that has shown [to be] just as effective,” Smith says. “And [we will] also offer the socialization that is necessary to make everyone feel a part of the Cisco family.”