HR Breakathon: How Cisco used Design Thinking to transform HR in 1 Day
January 22, 2020 | Design Thinking
by ExperiencePoint

Does design thinking have the power to transform a company? Of course! Does it have the power to do it in 24 hours? Wait, what?

It sounds implausible, but this single-day transformation is exactly what happened at Cisco a few years ago. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the process started when folks at Cisco began to think about the barriers, both large and small, that hinder HR from being its best self.

Francine Katsoudas, senior VP and chief people officer at Cisco, outlined some new goals at a keynote session at the HR People + Strategy annual conference last year.

She spoke of the changing nature of work and the need for ongoing transformation as technology disrupts every part of the workplace.

For HR at Cisco, Katsoudas appeal meant taking a hard look at their processes and procedures. Were they aligned with employee needs and wants? Were they poised to take Cisco into the future of work?

The answer to those questions was no. At Cisco, employees were telling HR that it had become too formal, too program-centric. So HR decided it was time to get to the heart of the matter, in order to better position Cisco for the future.

It became clear that Cisco HR needed to pause for 24 hours in order to, as Cisco highlights, “make HR a better place for our employees and for ourselves.”

The result was the HR Breakathon, essentially a worldwide brainstorming session, involving 800 employees across 16 time zones, 116 cities and 39 countries.

Participants aimed to tear apart HR from the inside out, leveraging coworkers’ perspectives without relying on outside consultants to do the job. Cisco reasoned that their own employees had an expert understanding of the company; they were best poised to solve Cisco’s problems.

According to SHRM, participants broke into cross-functional teams of four to eight people. Looking for ways for HR to be more responsive, relevant and useful to the company, they focused on areas like onboarding, learning and development and workplace design.

As Cisco explained in a slideshare presentation of the event, the teams were aiming for “tangible, practical solutions to be applicable in the short and mid term in the real Cisco world, starting from a clear description of the problem being tackled, showing the characteristics and the value of the proposed solution and laying out the key implementation steps.”

At the end of the day, participants had brainstormed 105 ideas and solutions, each accompanied by a video. Ideas covered areas including talent acquisition, onboarding, learning and development, teams, leaders and leadership, PTO, culture, workplace design, connecting people, career enablement, moments that matter and knowledge exchange.

Just one of the real-world outcomes: A complete overhaul of Cisco’s onboarding process, including the development of a mobile app designed specifically for new employees.

The Cisco story goes to show the power of human-centered problem solving and how, given the right circumstances, it can make a difference in a single day.

Design thinking is becoming increasingly popular in the HR industry. Read more about the method’s impact on People Operations in our post design thinking and employee engagement.


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