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ORLANDO, Fla.—Cisco’s John Chambers has a bold vision for how to not only revolutionize IT but to
fundamentally upset the way global business gets done. It’s an inspiring
message on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that the plan won’t
work without a great deal of support from a better-trained cadre of channel
partners.

Chambers laid out his plans for what Cisco Systems has termed "The Power
of Collaboration" in a rollicking Cisco Live keynote here June 24 that was
part product demo, part tent revival. Chambers’ challenge for IT professionals to
transform the business organizations they serve through telepresence, Web 2.0
applications and intelligent networking was delivered in that inimitable West
Virginia drawl that has been seemingly immune to change in his decades as a
valley insider.

At Cisco Live, traditionally an event dedicated to long-term strategy and
vision, Chambers spent most of his time off the stage, prowling the auditorium
aisles like a camp-meeting preacher. And, indeed, there’s a certain amount of
evangelism at the heart of what Chambers is selling. To be converted, IT admins
and reseller partners need to believe that building out videoconferencing
capabilities and melding them with some admittedly cool, though largely
untested, community tools—all with no immediate improvement to the bottom
line—will result in a worthwhile evolution of the enterprise.

It doesn’t hurt that they’re getting that message from a guy who’s been right
before. Several times.

"We are now going to think of everything as a service," Chambers
says. "Software, computing, bandwidth, storage, everything. Along with
that, the next wave of business, enabled by collaboration and Web 2.0, will
drive a decade of productivity gains.

"We’re starting with ourselves at Cisco, then driving it to our partners
and our customers," he says.

By way of example, Chambers says the combination of telepresence and other
integrated collaboration tools in use at Cisco has allowed engineers "to
touch 100 percent more customers while traveling much less. Telepresence is the
flagship of collaboration and a driver of new business models. It is connecting
us in ways we are just beginning to understand."

But the intelligent networking, IP telephony, wireless connectivity and
security acumen required to pull off Chamber’s new IT world view will require a
host of well-trained specialists, many of whom will be groomed from Cisco’s
partner community.

Earlier in the day, Cisco expanded its popular CCNA (Cisco
Certified Network Associate) certification program with the addition of CCNA
Security, CCNA Voice and CCNA Wireless designations. The expanded program is
designed to prepare technicians to handle the kinds of converged technologies
and sophisticated networks Chambers is championing.

Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, general manager of Learning@Cisco, says the move is
nothing short of a direct effort "to address the global IT talent
shortage, accelerate the development of the information economy and improve the
productivity of this vital technical community. [With] the growing global
demand for networking talent, we estimate that we will need to double or even
triple our certified individuals over the next five years."

A recent Forrester study, commissioned by Cisco, predicted that the need for
specialized networking skills will grow between 30 and 40 percent to a total of
some 3 million network IT staff needed over the next five years.

Jeremy Gill, vice president of IT at Michael Baker, says he is naturally
intrigued by the possibilities presented by Cisco’s collaboration message.
"But there is definitely a skills gap," Gill says. "We look to
Cisco to bring in people, to bring in a VAR
with the skills needed to pull this together."

"From the channel partner perspective, we’re definitely looking at giving
them the skills and the tools they need as well as [helping] with training,
certification [and] accreditation," says Douglas Gourlay, senior director
of marketing and product management in Cisco’s data center business unit.

With that trained support work force in place, Chambers says he’s confident the
rapid changes in collaboration technologies will transform business, something
he says is already happening in his own organization.

Chambers says he now communicates with Cisco employees almost exclusively by
video blog. "It already feels like we’ve always done it this way," he
says. According to Chambers, Cisco staffer took 119,000 meetings by
teleconference in the past year, saving $150,000 in travel costs.

But it’s more than just the cost savings, Chambers claims. Staffers also give
feedback through forums, blogs and an in-house wiki, creating a 360-degree
environment for ideas and innovation. That process was opened to outsiders
recently in an initiative called i-Prize, for which 1,200 competitors from 10
countries submitted ideas, vying for the $250,000 first prize, and, more
importantly, a shot at having their own business unit within Cisco. The list
has been pared to 32 with a winner to be announced in July.

It’s the kind of project that never could have been managed without the
integrated collaboration tools being used throughout the Cisco organization,
Chambers says.

In fact, part of the keynote was a demo of Cisco’s new WebEx Connect, which has
taken the familiar WebEx product from a basic online meeting tool to a robust
virtual community that includes meeting space, forums, file sharing, widgets,
news feeds, contact management and multidevice support, all in a customizable
environment meant to manage workgroups over the life of a project.

"This, like everything we’ve talked about, transforms how we communicate
and organize," Chambers says. "This is the new role of IT."