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March 31, 2016

Cisco HR Breakathon- Design Thinking Employee Experiences.

As many of us read, in the recent report titled ‘Human Capital Trends 2016’, Deloitte surveyed over 7,000 HR Managers in over 130 countries around the world, 92% of whom saw a need to redesign the organisation itself. In this report, most significantly, 79% of the respondents felt that Design Thinking is an “important” or “very important” issue that must be addressed to reduce unnecessary workplace complexity. (more here)

Now, what does that mean, for HR and the organisation?

Here’s Cisco’s approach (Cisco HR Breakathon) 

At Cisco, a transformation is happening in their HR department led by the inspiring Chief People Officer, Fran Katsoudas. “The goal,” says Fran, “Is to create a nimbler, more responsive HR department where silos, time zones and cultural barriers are broken down so we can create innovative new HR solutions.”

The Cisco team used design thinking to “break” and then re-imagine HR solutions for 71,000 global Cisco employees. The company actually closed HR for 24 hours and announced to the employees they were using the time to engage the HR team and key stakeholders to create innovative HR solutions to deliver a memorable employee experience. They conducted an HR Breakathon to address four key steps; from changing the mindset to identifying and implementing a set of HR solutions.

A block diagram representing Cisco HR Breakathon
A block diagram representing Cisco HR Breakathon



The entire process for the Cisco HR Breakathon was 24 hours, spanning 16 time zones, 39 countries, 116 cities, and, in the end, generating 105 new HR solutions.

At the core of the Breakathon, Cisco applied Design Thinking to focus on creating an employee experience that is intuitive, engaging, and mirrors a consumer experience. They had great benchmarks – companies such as Qualcomm are using Design Thinking to rethink corporate learning, and Zappos is using this to re-imagine the candidate experience.

The result: the Cisco Global Breakathon gave birth to 105 new HR solutions covering talent acquisition, new hire on-boarding, learning and development, team development, and leadership.

Jeanne Meister, a Partner with Future Workplace, and author of the best selling book, ‘The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop & Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today’ decoded the five key takeaways in an article in Forbes recently:

Lesson #1: Use Design Thinking To Form The Foundation Of The HR Hackathon
Applying Design Thinking to the workplace experience requires HR to move from its process mindset to a marketing mindset, focusing on the employee and how to create a truly extraordinary experience for employees. And in many cases the winning HR solutions incorporated consumer technologies increase productivity and innovation in the workplace.

Lesson #2: Create A Global Experience Where Diversity Of Thought Predominates
The Cisco HR Breakathon was hosted on site in nine locations (Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Bangalore, Jerusalem, Krakow, London, Raleigh, and San Jose), plus it incorporated Cisco collaboration tools, including TelePresence, WebEx, and Spark rooms. The Breakathon was executed according to a follow-the-sun approach, starting in Sydney, moving to Tokyo, and then throughout the globe, ending in San Jose, CA. Says Fran Katsoudas, “I launched the Breakathon from Cisco’s Bangalore, India location to make the point we wanted a have a global dialogue on this important topic.

Lesson #3: Use Collaborative Technologies To Engage, Inspire And Reward
Often Hackathons are executed by bringing everyone together in one location so they can generate new solutions offerings while engaging in a fun group activity. What Cisco did was re-create the energy of bringing a couple of hundred people together by using a mix of their technologies to capture the excitement and energy in each location. The judges and experts were also on call using collaborative technologies such as Spark, Jabber, and WebEx. Finally hackathons at their core are a lot of fun. So to be sure everyone was having fun and sharing this with others, Cisco used their own Web Tracking App and all forms of social media using the hashtag #WeAreCisco to provide a visual pulse of the Breakathaon in each location.

Lesson #4: Create A Robust Communications Program To Generate Early Excitement
The Cisco Breakathon was anticipated by a well thought out communications campaign which started nine months before the actual event. The campaign included weekly newsletter to key executives, and culminated in the asking participants to answer a quick quiz, starting with the question, “What is a hackathon?”

Lesson #5: Partner With Key Stakeholders And HR Customers
Cisco’ s Breakathon was inclusive not only globally but also in reaching out to key business units to involve them in the experience. The key, according to Fran Katsoudas, “We created a global and cross-functional event dedicated to hack all the ‘little and big things,’ that hinder HR from providing an extraordinary employee experience” Fran believes the power of the Cisco HR Breakathon was in empowering the HR organisation to let go of process thinking, engaging an extended global community and putting the Cisco employee experience at the centre.



According Ben Whitter, of The University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) and a key voice on Employee Experience (Ex) thinking, pointed out recently that “What is clear is that this move quite visibly positions the employee experience as critical to the business, not HR”

For that, HR needs to establish itself as no longer just a support function within the business. Because the employee experience, to a large extent, is the business. 


At The Painted Sky and UBQT, we work with HR teams to address exactly these and other needs to co-create solutions. We have both the experience and the expertise to develop, design and deliver solutions through a powerful approach that helps HR understand, focus, build and test what works for their personnel in the real world. And we support our clients in both of the above areas: learning Design Thinking as a process, and applying Design Thinking as a tool. 

Through Training Programmes and Consulting Practices, The Painted Sky can help HR master and apply Design Thinking in everything it does. Over the last year, we have helped HR clients develop:

  1. An improved Employee Engagement platform that reduces attrition and builds morale,
  2. A powerful Performance Management process that help improve communication, clarity and collaboration,
  3. A revolutionary Training Needs Assessment tool that changes the way Development Needs are mapped and identified.

As the Deloitte report states, “Design Thinking promotes a virtuous cycle, generating higher levels of employee satisfaction, greater engagement, and higher productivity for the company.”

So, do get in touch with us to know more about our Design Thinking solutions, from Training to Transformation. And how these can help you become more employee centric and boost productivity and performance.

Anirban Bhattacharya

Anirban Bhattacharya

Now Hiring! Founder at ubqt Design Thinking School. Founder at The Painted Sky

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