Cisco's 'Chief Futurist' Seeking Smarter Products
As Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. executive Chris Chang looked for ways to get vacationers to spend more time -- and money -- inside his company’s casinos, he found inspiration from an unexpected source: Cisco Systems Inc.
The networking company devised a hotel room key that shows guests how to find what they want to do. By touching the key to digital signs at Caesars Palace, they see deals for fine dining, massages or shopping at Harrah’s 10 Las Vegas hotels. The idea came from Dave Evans, Cisco’s chief futurist, part of a 22- person team that helps companies use new technologies to revamp their businesses.
“Our properties are massive and it can be hard finding out what we have,” said Chang, vice president of innovation and information technology for Harrah’s, the world’s biggest casino owner. “We thought, wouldn’t it be cool to use technology to send you information and recommendations on things we know you’d want to do, such as visiting our spa or booking a cabana?”
Evans and his Global Innovation Practice may help Cisco meet its three-year goal, thwarted by the recession, of increasing revenue by 12 percent to 17 percent annually in 2011. Cisco reported Wednesday that sales in the year ended July 31 rose 11 percent to a record $40 billion. Revenue may grow 13 percent to $45.3 billion the following year, according to analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.
Cisco was unchanged at $21.36 at 4 p.m. New York time on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock has dropped 11 percent this year.
Though Evans’s team is small, its potential effect on companies -- and Cisco itself -- could be large. That’s because most of its innovations hinge on computer networking. When customers buy into Evans’s view of the future, they drive demand for the routers and switches made by Cisco.
Total cost to customers: zero. That’s no fee for months of work, including time spent analyzing what a customer wants to achieve, suggesting ways to improve, devising interactive designs and testing how consumers react to them. This means the team generates no direct revenue for Cisco, which still gets most of its annual sales from routers and switches.
“I spend a lot of my time prognosticating about the future,” said Evans, who develops the prototypes that make customers’ goals tangible. “I’m interested in where technology is going, but as it applies to real-world business problems.”
In the past two years, the 43-year-old Evans helped design an Internet-enabled bus with the city of San Francisco, created advanced teleconferencing rooms that promote brainstorming at General Electric Co. and developed Harrah’s digital displays. His team also mocked up an automotive dashboard that relies on voice commands to display video and other Internet content, and it created a virtual physicians’ assistant that learns from experience.
Cisco’s John Chambers created the team 15 years ago, when he became chief executive officer of the San Jose, California, company. His goal at the time: to change Cisco’s image as merely the largest seller of networking equipment. He wanted it to be seen as an authority on the shape of technologies to come.
“They work to broaden the horizons for executives on the art of the possible,” said Eric Openshaw, vice chairman and U.S. technology leader for consulting firm Deloitte LLP in Costa Mesa, California. “That enhances their brand as an adviser -- and not just a product company.”
Studying the Customer
It’s a collaborative effort that starts by scoping out the problem a company wants to solve, said Rick Hutley, vice president of the team. From there, it will suggest dozens of approaches, rapidly build and discard prototypes, test how people react to different iterations and watch the customers as they interact with the technology.
“We use high-definition video surveillance to monitor traffic patterns, length of time a customer might dwell in an area, what they may have done before approaching the area and what they do after they leave,” said Rachael McBrearty, director of customer experience. “We also interview customers after they’ve gone through the experience. We’ll spend two to three days observing, make changes, and go back and do it again.”
Few efforts involved as many collaborators as San Francisco’s Connected Bus Project. More than 300 people from 30 organizations came together to design, wire and weld the gear needed to build a traveling Internet hub.
Shorter Wait Times
The bus, which went into service in February 2008 for a one-year trial, provided uninterrupted Wi-Fi. It also displayed when other buses would arrive at stops along the route, helping riders figure out the best transfer points -- with the shortest wait times -- between buses.
“The challenge was, how do you get people out of cars and into public transportation,” said Evans, who sports a thumb ring on his left hand and a thin gold hoop earring in his left ear. “We wanted to make transportation more appealing.”
More than a year later, the city is still analyzing what it learned, said Peter Albert, now manager of the transit agency’s urban planning initiatives. It found that Wi-Fi isn’t so useful during peak hours, when commuters have to stand. It also discovered the best viewing angles for video monitors, so riders can watch real-time tracking and know when to transfer.
“Dave Evans helped us look into the future,” said Albert, who was a deputy director of planning at the time. “The project has ended, but there was a seed left behind with the transit operators. It’s permanent, and it will bear fruit.”