Cisco is launching its fifth iteration of the Innovate Everywhere Challenge (IEC), the signature innovation program that empowers 75,000 employees across 90 countries to voice their ideas and bring them to life. It is an annual opportunity to engage all employees to innovate cross-functionally and showcase their entrepreneurial skills in fresh ways. IEC encourages employees to form teams around an innovative idea that is based in the company’s care-about areas like networking, security, collaboration, and more.
Winning teams receive $25,000 in cash recognition, $25,000 in seed funding, mentoring from Cisco professionals and coaches, and a three-month innovation rotation to focus on developing their solutions. To date, 46 percent of employees participated and over 2,800 ideas have been submitted. Among the 85 semifinalist teams, five ventures have been adopted by the business and implemented, generating more than $2 billion in business impact.
One team that has emerged from this program and has made significant waves is Project LifeChanger, an effort developed by Cisco employees to address hiring employees with disabilities.
Lives changed, internally and externally
IEC1 winner Project LifeChanger was created in 2015 after employees saw a need that was not being met. In the United States, two out of every three working-age people with disabilities are unemployed. People with disabilities who have advanced levels of education also suffer from high unemployment—only 56 percent are employed. The Project LifeChanger team wanted to change these statistics. The question for them was—how could they break down these barriers to employment?
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“Organizations should ensure that people of all physical and cognitive abilities have the opportunity to have not just a job, but a career." says Cisco VP, Chief Inclusion and Collaboration Officer Shari Slate.
Beyond just a means to win support and funding, IEC provides a creative outlet for teams to bring their innovative ideas to life. The program shows employees that they have an idea worth pursuing. In the early stages of a team's journey, IEC encourages employees to find a sponsor to help groups set the directions during the incubation phase.
Each team from all iterations of IEC have contributed great successes to the program. For example, IEC2 Winner, Network Early Warning (NEW) finds problems in the network before they occur, with enough lead time to proactively notify the customer-and in many cases, to trigger automated remediation before the problem occurs. The team is now finishing a successful Early Field Trial with seven CX customers, and the solution is on its way to becoming a product in the CX Customer Portal and in CX Business Critical Services.
"The IEC really helped launch this idea into a program to build a solution," said Jaykishan Pandya, a data scientist and developer in the CX Innovation Team, "It upped the credibility of this concept and helped get the team motivated to solve some very difficult problems."
Another is IEC3 Winner QRKey. The team created an automated licensing tool that allows 100,000 customer interactions per year to be completed in a one-click solution.
“One of things I love about the IEC is that it gave me the space to take something I'm passionate about - troubleshooting - apply it at a global level and fix it,” says Technical Engineer Consultant Michael Wall.
The Qualex team, IEC3 Winner, brought an AI-powered algorithm portfolio that quantifies quality with actionable analytics.
“I see a lot more employees blocking time to work on innovation, says Senior Engineering Manager Girish Babu, “People see how others have advanced their ideas through IEC and other innovation programs, and it inspires them to work on their passions.”
And IEC3 Winner, Complex Deals Made Easy, also provided a commercial deal modeling platform called Mosaic that addresses the often-lengthy processing issues of responding to complex real-time transfer protocols (RtP). Mosaic helps the account team’s model complex deals much more quickly and easily, and streamlines the RtP process so that teams can use their time focusing on creativity.
“I enjoyed having the chance to step out of my day-to-day job and do something creative,” says Complex Deals Made Easy team member Lam-Son Nguyen, “Getting together with some colleagues that I didn’t know before and then becoming a real team over the months was very rewarding. Having won the IEC, we received cash that we are using to further develop our application.”
Innovation beyond the program
Teams like Complex Deals Made Easy are still receiving wins after their IEC experience is over—the ideas and products coming out of the program are proving to show true value. This team recently had its first major development milestone; loading a complex deal into the cloud and calculating the deal accurately and in real-time. The Complex Deals team sees this as a true success, and looks toward another phase of testing, building, and integrating.
“The team is still together,” says Nguyen, “The target was to make the application more stable and scalable by porting the user interface from Excel to a web-based interface. With IEC funding and some additional funding through our sponsors, we have hired two software developers to write the code. With their help, we just reached the first out of three milestones.”
IEC Fifth Anniversary
With four iterations of IEC, the program and its leaders are still discovering new ways to provide more opportunities and resources to the teams.
“Our partnership with Decibel will give the teams one-on-one mentorship and an external perspective on their ventures,” says Chen.
Decibel is a new venture capital firm partnering with Cisco, that will operate as an independent entity to focus on enterprise innovation. This VC executes its own investment strategy, fund operations, and portfolio management, while still being a collaborative partner with Cisco. By providing mentorship from the folks at Decibel, IEC5 participants will get world-class perspective and advice on their ideas.
In addition, Cisco is encouraging innovation for social and environmental impact—teaming up with the Corporate Affairs organization.
“This partnership will give employees an opportunity to develop innovations that accelerate global problem solving to benefit people, society, and the planet.” says Flora Freitas, IEC Program Lead.
With four years of collaboration, inclusion, and innovation, we look forward to seeing even more employee-led innovation. It’s innovation that has proven time and again to add positive value to the business.