Did Cisco Prove Bill Gates Wrong on Social Responsibility?

Rob Enderle
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5 Conversations IT Needs to Have with C-Level Peers

Years ago, I watched with interest Bill Gates come to the conclusion that his next big effort wouldn’t be a new technology product. Instead, it would be finding ways to help areas and people, both foreign and domestic, that needed it. His foundation has since been a powerful platform for change. Many argued that he could have been far more effective as CEO of Microsoft. He realized at the time, though, that he couldn’t split his focus. Conversely, Steve Jobs stopped all philanthropic efforts at Apple, believing investors wanted to make those decisions themselves and that his job was to get them the money to do so. David Roman, who is now Lenovo’s CMO, while at HP found a way to creatively blend marketing with celebrity philanthropy to further HP’s marketing and philanthropic goals. It remains one of the most creative yet unrepeated efforts in the market today.

Cisco is taking a very different path, granted one that particularly lends itself to communications, by blending its philanthropic and corporate goals into something that is also impressively powerful. Perhaps this showcases that, in this, Gates and Jobs might have been wrong. This falls under Cisco’s Social Responsibility organization and it too is a very creative blend.

Let’s talk about that.

Tactical Operations

Communications have to work across a variety of conditions and customers expect these technologies to be so reliable that their chance of failure is insignificant. A great deal of money is spent on testing to harden these technologies. Cisco appears to have realized that one of the best tests is during a disaster because this puts the technology into situations that are typically beyond design parameters. If it can hold up in a disaster, it should be able to hold up against almost anything else. In addition, countries specify technology that is designed to be deployed either during rescue operations or for defense and they need even more rigorous testing. Cisco needs to develop skills in its employees that are consistent with those of the unique customers that have these needs.

The Cisco Tactical Operations unit’s mission is to work directly with organizations like FEMA, the United Nations and the American Red Cross to set up communications for first responders in time of need. Specially trained engineers design and install communications equipment while specially trained operations coordinators manage logistics and planning on site. This group is supplemented by the Disaster Incident Response team, a group of uniquely trained Cisco volunteers who put their lives at risk with TacOps and are asked to respond quickly during a crisis.


These organizations have provided critical help and communications support during Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs in 2012. During down time, they participate in training events like the Girl Scouts Science Camp to get kids interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Through this program, Cisco not only provides critical help but it gains unmatched knowledge on what goes on during a disaster, how to better build hardware so it can survive these events, and the skills needed to create tools and people who can better operate in them. It shows that you don’t have to separate helping from corporate goals; you can align them and have a multiplicative impact on related problems. In this case, the result is systems and special tools more uniquely designed to survive and help with disasters in the hands of Cisco customers, overlaid with a support team that can fill the holes and constantly increase the preparedness of the world for these events.

This is called leverage and, when applied successfully, it can multiply the beneficial impact of any investment.

Wrapping Up: Leveraging Both Needs: Corporate and Philanthropic

For every company that makes a product that fulfills a critical need like communications, there is likely a convergence between what those products do day to day and what they mean to those in critical need. If, like Cisco, a firm can find that convergence, it likely can have a much bigger impact on the world by using a team like Cisco’s TacOps to help in times of need and then filtering back what is learned to multiply the effect of that effort to other professional teams asked by their governments to address similar instances. They also gain a clear knowledge of how important it is to have products that can weather these kinds of storms, reducing the need for these efforts over time and allowing these limited resources to be spread less thinly and to better focus on the biggest of problems.

In the end, this showcases that you can actually create leverage and have a far bigger impact if you can find synergy between what the company needs to do anyway and what the firm wants to do to be more socially responsible.

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+


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Jan 31, 2016 12:44 PM davidhoffman5 davidhoffman5  says:
Good article. All are valid viewpoints on how to do social involvement. Let the stockholders do it is very valid. Apple does do some things directly involving use of its hardware and software in public schools and other public institutions. Low noise pilot programs. Reply
Feb 1, 2016 1:32 PM Darel Rex Finley Darel Rex Finley  says:
Kudos, really, to Gates for trying to cure malaria. Let's all sincerely hope he (or somebody) succeeds. That said — looking back on his "years ago" decision to step down from Microsoft, I can't help but suspect that he knew the jig was up: Apple was going back into creative overdrive, and this time no IBM megalith was going to step in, take it all away, then accidentally drop it into Microsoft's lap. Nor was some sympathetic appeals judge going to once again let him take Apple's best work for free. He knew that was all a once-in-a-lifetime luck-out, and his smartest move was to take his money, leave the table, and start salvaging his legacy. Reply
Feb 1, 2016 4:06 PM kannanp kannanp  says:
Rob, You are entitled to your opinion but you are slanting the view. BillG chose to do what he wanted and he did it better than any other organization. All philanthrophy is welcome change to 62 people owing 50% of world's weatlh! Reply
Feb 2, 2016 4:36 PM Ira Dreyfuss Ira Dreyfuss  says:
Cisco's Tactical Operations unit could do a lot of good, but in an arena that is perhaps a default focus for IT response to a disaster -- helping disaster professionals. What could be much more valuable is facilitation of people-to-people help among members of the public. In disasters, far more people help each other than ever seek help from professionals, and IT under-serves this arena. A national response infrastructure is needed to grow the handful of businesses and agencies that do 2914this work. Cisco could be immensely valuable in this regard. Reply
Feb 10, 2016 12:47 AM Rakesh Bharania Rakesh Bharania  says: in response to Ira Dreyfuss
Hi Ira, Great point... I work on the TACOPS team, and while this article doesn't mention it directly, we do see communications as a form of direct aid, just like food, water and medical care. Our most recent response (in late 2015) was to aid the refugee crisis in Europe, and in that event we are providing direct communications to many tens of thousands of people along the migration route. This post on the Cisco blog discussed our deployment... http://blogs.cisco.com/ioe/reconnecting-refugees-with-loved-ones-thanks-to-the-cisco-disaster-response-team Thanks! Rakesh Bharania Cisco TACOPS Reply
Mar 1, 2016 5:13 AM Ira Dreyfuss Ira Dreyfuss  says: in response to Rakesh Bharania
Hi, Rakesh, This would be good to discuss offline, but to follow up, would Cisco TACOPS be interested in helping to create a citizen-based volunteer-NGO system for people-to-people disaster recovery in the United States? Online programs that let people network for recovery are already available, and some NGOs (e.g., United Way organizations in South Carolina) have done great work in using software to help people more efficiently. But these are individual electric sparks when we need a national grid. It will take an organization with national standing to take the lead to create one. I can't create it, but I can advise on how to do it if you're interested. Reply

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