Cisco Blogs

The Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise

January 11, 2010 - 50 Comments

As we enter a new decade, it seems appropriate to reflect on the transformation of the “Enterprise.”  No, I am not talking about the starship! Smile

I am referring to the organizational framework that has been the mainstay of business structure for the past couple of decades. Historically many models of enterprise structure have emerged: functional, divisional, centralized, decentralized and matrixed, to name a few. Rather than debate the merits and demerits of these, let us envision what the future model might be for a successful enterprise.

What will the next generation business enterprise look like?

Well, there is no crystal ball to give us an exact answer for sure. However, we can certainly call out some of the key characteristics of the next generation enterprise. These include: a geographically distributed workforce; the innate ability to embrace innovation both inside and outside the organization’s boundaries; flexibility in business processes to include customers, suppliers and partners; and perhaps most important, a culture of openness and shared ideas. Yes, I am talking here about the Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise (NGCE).

By the way, it is important to point out that collaboration must not be confused with consensus or teamwork. Collaboration does not mean everyone must agree before any decision is made. Nor does it suggest that there is no room for individual creativity. Quite the contrary! Collaboration encourages clusters of experts with diverse skills to make decisions quickly. The Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise allows experts at any level to propose, create and execute without hierarchical or geographical constraints.

The decade ahead will see the emergence of the Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise that will leverage innovation and operational excellence without boundaries.

Now picture this. Priorities are set by clusters of experts that make decisions. Decisions are communicated real-time through social media applications. Work is shared on a secure collaboration technology platform. Individuals are able to apply themselves to the work based on their skills and availability, regardless of their geographic location. Expertise outside the Enterprise is included ‘on-demand’ to bring necessary knowledge to bear. Funding is directed based on milestones. Direct accountability is embedded into the social network. Finally, organizational functions become less relevant and ‘Re-orgs’ become obsolete. Leadership is defined as the ability to influence, envision and execute ― rather than the authority to command and control.

Sounds like a great vision, but is it practical?

As I often say, vision without execution is just a dream. To enable this scenario, many capabilities are required to transform how an organization operates. From a technology perspective, the enterprise collaboration platform must make it easy for an individual to access and share information with other experts. This collaboration technology architecture incorporates mobility, security, synchronous and asynchronous communication, personalization, community, team spaces, borderless networks, and rich interactions ― and we will likely create additional functionality that will evolve over time.

Although I’m a technologist at heart, we all know collaboration is not just about the technology. It is about how you apply it to workflows and processes to achieve business value. It is also about how you embed it within a corporate culture to maximize and sustain that value. It is Cisco’s thinking about how process and culture contribute to a collaborative enterprise that I want to share with you in some detail.

From a culture and people perspective, we describe the NGCE as a virtual organization that dynamically forms and executes against a company’s priorities. It also captures global opportunities, while eliminating the barriers of time, location, culture, and language. The characteristics of this next-generation workforce include:

  • greater importance on an individual’s visibility and reputation;
  • schedules that occur any where and at any time based on working moments;
  • rewards and compensation based on value of contribution and expertise;
  • managers who act as coaches to ensure the right skills and resources are applied to the right priorities;
  • communications that use richer mediums, are multi-lingual and require new behaviors; and
  • organizations that are formed based on business priorities and are staffed from a global marketplace of talent.

From a business architecture perspective, integrated global processes are designed to deliver predictable business results. The NGCE architecture must address processes that cover strategy and planning, delivering value to customers and partners, human capital, innovation and design, manufacturing and distribution, marketing and messaging.

The question to ask yourself as you enter a new decade is: how can you lead your own organization through this journey?  I believe Cisco is well on its way to becoming a true NGCE. Cisco released an Executive Guide (.pdf document) last summer that documented how an organization can achieve value from collaboration by focusing on process, culture and technology as part of the Cisco Collaboration Framework. We invite you to join us in creating this future.

In an effort to keep conversations fresh, Cisco Blogs closes comments after 60 days. Please visit the Cisco Blogs hub page for the latest content.


  1. I guess that to receive the business loans from banks you ought to present a good motivation. Nevertheless, once I have received a short term loan, because I wanted to buy a house.”

  2. It is an impresive vision but it is not possible to put in practice, it is really hard to change the operating system of an organisation

  3. interested and nice post thank you

  4. Interesting post, Padmasree. It is in many ways heartening to see both the technology and the organizational thinking catching up with the vision of what you are calling the Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise (NGCE). In the past, we have had different names for the NGCE vision. One I recall from my days in defense system acquisition was he extended enterprise””. Another is one I started using around ten years ago and which I still find to be the most useful, and the most attractive (although there may be more than a little narcissism at work here) – “”The Fractal Enterprise””. I first introduced this appellation for the NGCE in around 1999 as part of a talk called “”Managing Knowledge in the Fractal Enterprise””. Here I contrasted the virtual, adaptive fractal enterprise with its true nemesis “”the unconscious organization””. In all these past incarnations of the NGCE (or attempts at it), the challenge we have faced is that the infrastructure, broadly considered, did not yet exist so realizing even small parts of the vision was excrutiatingly hard to do. Through the ministrations of enterprises like Cisco, however, we are seeing that it is not so difficult now and this means that it is much more productive to delve into the organizational and personal dimensions of living in a new collaborative paradigm. I gave a talk at an internal event within Boeing a couple of years ago and it was entitled “”Web 2.0 and the New Collaboration Paradigm”” and in it I let my usual skepticism slip and showed an unusually open display of excitement. With our experience on the 787 program, where we were walking the talk in a way, and on a scale, perhaps never before seen, I was not the only one showing such enthusiasm. I was pointed to your post by a visitor to my own blog and this visitor (Steve – your first commentator on this post) felt that my reflections on the “”Seven Professional Arts”” (a modernization of the medieval seven liberal arts) would fit neatly within this discussion – especially as we turn our thoughts to the types of skills and knowledge will be needed in this more collaborative world. This post can be found at On one of the points touched on in your post that “”vision without execution is just a dream”” I cannot help but add the rejoinder that “”execution without vision is suicide”” and requiring that both of these propositions must be accepted as necessary and inseparable.”

  5. Very good! I am impressed with Cisco. Currently, AI guru Dr. Ben Goertzel and I are working some good products. Your piece made me think of something in relation to what we’re doing. Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Kevin, you asked a good question regarding rewards and compensations: I agree this will be a major transformation for enterprises from their traditional HR processes. The individual employee will have more control to develop his/her reputation across the organization.

  7. Peter, you make a good point about cultures that have a strong sense of belonging to their enterprise. The NGCE will still include physical office space for most large organizations, and these local offices will provide a level of connectedness for those who need it. However, traditional management hierarchies will be replaced with new management models that leverage virtual skilled employees, regardless of where they physically sit.

  8. David, within Cisco, measurement models are central to our current and future operations. I believe the Era of Collaboration is already here and the future will be very promising for those who can best take advantage of it!

  9. Sam, yes the community behavior of ants is becoming more appealing. 🙂

  10. William, it’s very encouraging to see a management consulting firm embedding unique knowledge transfer and experience practices in its operational model. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Joe, many thanks for sharing your concept of the Fractal Enterprise and the Seven Professional Arts. I agree: advancements in social media technologies and unified communications enable us to build these types of organizations. And the next step, as you point out, is to connect communities of experts distributed across the enterprise and across the globe.

  12. (I’m a UI designer working in this space at Cisco.)You wrote:
    ewards and compensation based on value of contribution and expertise””It seems to me that peoples’ contributions (or lack thereof) will become more and more obvious in an online ‘world’. A collaborative platform will include space for public demonstration of someone’s contributions, and perhaps the value of said contributions-i.e., there will be nowhere to hide! This is one of the more transformative developments for a big corporation where the sheer scale hides a degree of built-in inefficiency.”

  13. Padmasree, I believe that collaborative enterprise which breaks down the conventional geographic and time constrains will be a trend in the future. However, as I know, many Oriental employees see their companies as their homes. For example, some of my colleagues work more than 15 hours in the office and deduct the commuting time, they actually spend less than 8 hours in their real homes””. These people love the enterprises so much and they have strong feeling about that they belong to the organizations. I am not sure how they can survive if someday the organizations become “”virtual””.”

  14. It’s nice to see when people collaborate on a project, I have always advocated for social work. That is always productive.

  15. What will the next generation business enterprise look like?Well, there is no crystal ball to give us an exact answer for sure. However, we can certainly call out some of the key characteristics of the next generation enterprise. These include: a geographically distributed workforce; the innate ability to embrace innovation both inside and outside the organization’s boundaries; flexibility in business processes to include customers, suppliers and partners; and perhaps most important, a culture of openness and shared ideas. Yes, I am talking here about the Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise (NGCE).

  16. Well written and thought provoking. There is a way to measure the input and quality thereof per participant…the tech that could do this is not really that far away.The Era of Collaboration is starting to gather steam and the next 10-15 yrs. will be interesting because of it.

  17. Very nice article. This definitely reminds me of the Hollywood Model”” referenced by Richard Florida in the Creative Class – in where people get together and collaborate on projects to provide the best possible service for the customer. Great article, i see the future of business headed this way.”

  18. Padmasree – I understand that the vision of swarming ants probably isn’t that pleasant. 🙂 However, I was thinking about how ant colonies are very community-based and seem to swarm to solve problems, whether infrastructure based (collapsed tunnel) or needs-based (finding a food source and communicating to others location). They all seem to be working for the good of the community as opposed to engaging in Alpha/dominant behavior. They seem to a very utilitarian outlook. 🙂

  19. Comprehensive and motivating post, enjoy your twitter input as well. I would encourage all of us to not let the burdens of large corporate cultures stop us from believing this vision you outline can be acheived. Each one of us that can envision this needs to make steps every day in this direction. Thanks for leading the way!

  20. Hi Padmasree -there is an extra dimension that you might like to consider. At Valuta (a niche management consultancy) we have a porous organisation, where client resources are encouraged to work alongside Valuta team leaders on assignments. A client resource may work with us in their own organisation, and even more usefully, on assignments in other client organisations. These client resources ‘join’ Valuta for short periods, contribute and learn, then ‘leave’ and return to their own organisation.The client resource increases the volume and diversity of knowledge and experience available through the organisation. The short term ‘joining’ and ‘leaving’ mirrors the actions of the Valuta associates, who work in a similar way.Many thanksWilliam

  21. Nice commentary (based on this blog) in by Mike Schaffner entitled How Technology Enhances Collaboration””:

  22. Terrific post! Thanks for articulating the differences among collaboration, teamwork and consensus. These are important distinctions that help drive business and effective communication.

  23. I think that the model that my company corporates has proven to be highly effective. Basicly the main plot is to hire everyone for each project. This saves money and in a way time since they are all freelancers who want to get things done and get paid.

  24. Gary, thanks for sharing your thoughts on constructing “soft walls” around your organization and the related concept of “dynamically binding” products and services in a fluid, customer-centric manner. Well said! You’re hitting on what I consider to be the single biggest advantage you get with next-generation collaborative practices: the ability to infuse more agility and responsiveness into your organization, which results in real competitive advantage.

  25. Sam, I like your analogy: you compared self-forming collaborative teams to white blood cells swarming to address a problem:). However, your image of swarming ants was a bit more challenging for me visually!

  26. Sandeep, you asked about the potential reach of collaborative systems in countries like India and China, where there is less infrastructure already in place. In our view, collaboration is not just about technology but also about culture and process. So for emerging countries with limited IT infrastructure, it is still very applicable.

  27. Lakshmi, you posed an interesting question about how to ensure that a collaborative framework is in line with the organization’s top business goals. There absolutely needs to be an alignment between the bottoms-up approach and the top-down framework. The way we ensure this occurs across Cisco is by making sure that our Councils (the decision-making bodies) always include subject matter experts across functions, geographies and different levels in the organization.

  28. Jacob, you asked a good question regarding process technologies: We are not investigating the use of human process management systems yet. However, we are using Collaboration Impact Zones (described in our Executive Guide as an approach to analyze our processes and identify the greatest opportunities to apply collaboration to our business.

  29. Thanks to all of you for sharing your insights! Some excellent comments and feedback.Several of you pointed to useful, real-world examples of where collaboration is headed, including open source projects, virtual organizations, and volunteer teams. One of the common threads in many of those organizations is the ability to empower the individual, regardless of where they sit in a traditional org chart. At the same time, I couldn’t agree more regarding the need to have executive leaders who “walk the walk” on collaboration and serve as role models for what true collaborative behavior looks like. Some good comments regarding the importance of business process as well as the culture part of the equation. We’ve made progress here at Cisco to define changes in our HR processes and reward systems to ensure alignment with a culture of collaboration. Having said that, it’s definitely an ongoing journey and we continue to gain valuable lessons on how to put the right processes and rewards in place. Cisco is now organized around collaborative teams that we refer to as Boards and Councils. One of the inherent advantages in this collaborative model is that it enables us to deploy experts where they’re needed the most. It also allows us to prioritize and execute on top priorities more quickly, because cross-functional decision-making becomes part of the basic fabric of the culture.

  30. Brilliant! Couldn’t agree more with you the characteristic of Collaboration. Personalities involved in the decision will start working more collaboratively even if they disagree! It needs a huge transformation in the behavior of the organization, the Executive Leadership. It might somewhat be a shocker too to the so-called know-all”” and “”be-all”” decision makers who more than rare pose a bottleneck in the overall process. The good news is soon they will have to adapt to the change otherwise they change will overtake them:)It definitely will be interesting to see how the organization as it is today adapts to this change.”

  31. Padmasree: You and I are very much in sync on this vision. A few more thoughts, especially on the need for a new kind of manager…. geographically distributed workforce > Requires a truly networked organization, especially in management practices, avoiding command-and-control requirements such as needing to see employees to trust them.. the innate ability to embrace innovation both inside and outside the organization’s boundaries > Traditional hierarchical managers will be threatened by nontraditional sources of innovation (i.e. employees), and need training and incentives to learn how to embrace it.. perhaps most important, a culture of openness and shared ideas >> Same potential challenges as above, with the added need to include some typical Silicon Valley attributes – making resources available to constantly try new things, making it okay to fail fast, and a reward system that supports innovation. As Ross Mayfield says, we need to move from a need-to-know to a need-to-share system.. flexibility in business processes to include customers, suppliers and partners >> Requiring continuous conversation and continuous process improvement. Enterprise software companies have traditionally been the worst at this, taking customer requirements at the front end, developing applications over months or years through waterfall methods, and issuing applications at the other end – that meet now-ancient requirements. Just as agile programming has changed the game, agile customer and partner response processes are critical.A few more characteristics of the NGCE:. Soft walls”” of the organization… The lines between players in your corporate ecosystem may blur: You may partner with your customer to develop new products; your supplier may turn around and buy from you.. Dynamically binding… Customers will ask for unique combinations of your products and services, and you’ll need to provide that – whether you can provide all the pieces, or some come from your partners and suppliers. Think of the genetic process of recombinance, where new elements come to life through the additive properties of each element.. Continuous mission development… If an organization is the sum of its dynamically-bound parts, what is its purpose? That focus needs to be an ongoing conversation, continually discussed, communicated and committed to throughout the NGCE.gB”

  32. Padmasree – Your vision of the NGCE reminds me of white blood cells, or ants – swarming to a problem, all knowing what to do. I suppose the knowing”” would come from a leader in the case of the distributed collaborative enterprise, but that’s the idea that came to mind.Also, I agree heartily with Gurmeet – transparency within the NGCE is the key. I suppose that’s why the collaboration technology architecture would need to be secure, eh? :)”

  33. A post that defines the future Avatar. ‘Innovations and operational excellence without boundaries’ are the key words. Those who would mould their mind in this light and effect changes at the organisational level will lead , others will have to follow, one day, with delayed milestones. India does have the capacity and has shown , provided state apparatus remains distanced or non-interfering.

  34. Interesting post;I think embracing the multi-lingual communication barrier makes the case for NGCE

  35. The next generation Collaborative Enterprise will likely make good use of Knowledge Gathering and Question Answering done in Executable English.There’s emerging technology, live online, for this. You can Google Executable English”” to find it.Shared use of the technology is free, and there are no advertisements.”

  36. Padmasree: I would add another (desired) characteristic of the NGCE: Transparency””. Collaboration without transparency is short lived and leads to hoarding of knowledge. One needs technology, processes and a culture to promote transparency in order to truly enable the Next Generation Collaborative Enterprise.”

  37. Great post!!Question: You had mentioned ‘Priorities are set by clusters of experts that make decisions’ So, how does the framework ensure these priorities are in line with the business goals? Would like to hear your thoughts on strategy alignment in relation to this framework.

  38. Great article. Seems to me that many open source projects”” already have organisations that use this model to very great success. seems to best embody this kind of structure for me and the Drupal software itself has more of the functionality required to create this kind of collaborative environment than any other software that I’ve seen.”

  39. I believe it is important to point out that collaboration must not be confused with consensus or teamwork. Collaboration does not mean everyone must agree before any decision is made. Nice post!

  40. Padmasree, Hi. Very nice post. I was wondering what type of process technologies you are using, especially for human processes. I see a lot of emphasis on collaboration technologies (e.g. wiki, video conferencing), but nothing about process technologies being used (though process is mentioned as an important pillar in being a NGCE). Wiki’s don’t solve the process problem, since even though they are great collaboration tools -they really have no process management capabilities. In many cases Wiki users fall back on regular email for their person-to-person processes, which is a less than ideal solution.Is Cisco also looking at incorporating human process management types of technologies as part of their NGCE vision?

  41. Great post! I believe the NGCE will definitely have a global and virtual component. The talent and skills around the world will be utilized and competition in the workforce will become even more competitive. Employees will also have the capability to grow their talents and work on projects around the globe from their home office. My firm is a virtual organization and we embrace the virtual workforce and look forward to the latest collaborative tools to support our fast-paced industry.I believe we are ready, but can we keep up and can the future enterprise keep up?

  42. Nice blog. Covers all the dimensions on future collaborative development. For effective realization, the leadership also has to foster a one team one company mindset within all its employees across all sites.Some teams typically act as more or less than equals. Job insecurities in High cost countries, Cultural differences ( mid east, japan) & IP protection issues ( China) hinder global team work.

  43. Dear Padma Jee,Indeed the thought of NGCE is very exciting as well as a distant dream in this global scenario.I wish you and your team will persistent about the idea and make it a success.

  44. Interesting.. definitely we should be seeing more collaboration over the next new year!

  45. I’ve seen a large volunteer-based non-profit function this way, except of course there was no compensation involved. Out of a peer group, some rose to the top as leaders because of their drive, initiative, and the effectiveness of their communication and contributions. How this model would apply in a for-profit enterprise is intriguing. Thanks for this post!

  46. Good read, quite futuristic I would say, bur for a country like India and to a certain level China, without meeting the basic infrastructural needs, will it have a farther reach? Thanks

  47. PadmaWelcome to 2010 and thank you for this articulate and precise description of the future enterprise. You have rightly pointed out one of the main characteristics of Collaboration – he right to agree to disagree”” and yet work together towards progressing a common goal. This is going to be an extremely important step with a lot of work needed to change the leadership and management mindset, cultures of organizations as well as the capabilities of people to make them adaptive to this new reality. In fact, as you have pointed out in the past, this is the age of connecting with Real People = Real Time. Cisco with its Unified Communications Platform and tools such as Telepresencing will play a pivotal role in shaping the future economy.”

  48. Great vision.While technologies are being put in place, what about guidelines to embrace this culture by the leadership team.How do you put in place the measurements to quantify the returns and effectiveness of virtual teams / collaborative efforts.How do you weave this culture right into the appraisal systems through effective HR policies. Would be interested in knowing more.

  49. Hi Padmasree – nice post but I would add having the right Organizational Culture to your characteristics of next-generation workforce bullet list.Every Global 2000 CEO likes to say our most precious assets are their intellectual capital assets ( humans ) but many or probably most still operate with an Organizational Culture that hinders emergence, connection visibility, and knowledge flows that better illustrates how real work gets done.Organizations that see/use a more fluid collaborative, P2P, non-hierarchical network as a complement ( not replacement ) to hierarchy will be more successful with happier and more productive people than ossified hierarchical organizations that see it as threatening to status quo 😉