How Cisco Changed HR in 24 Hours Using Design Thinking

May 3, 2017

How Cisco Changed HR in 24 Hours Using Design Thinking

In one 24-hour period last year, Cisco broke down silos and routines at the worldwide technology company to bring employees together across 16 time zones in 116 cities and 39 countries for an HR Breakathon.

The idea was to focus on and break down those things that prevent HR from performing at its best and to open themselves up to new perspectives, according to Francine Katsoudas, Cisco's senior vice president and chief people officer.

"Our journey started with the realization that we in HR needed to show up [to work] differently," she said during a keynote session at the HR People + Strategy Annual Conference  in April.

Work is changing faster than people, continuous transformation in the workplace is the norm, and the future of work requires people to think and work differently, she pointed out.

"What our employees were telling us was that we had become incredibly formal, program-centric in everything we did. They wanted it to be simple and understand where we were going."

The nontech breakathon involved more than 800 employees—65 percent of whom were HR professionals, including a young woman in her first month on the job. Participants worked in cross-functional teams of four to eight people. Utilizing a concept called design thinking, they looked at areas where HR could intervene in tangible, practical ways, such as with onboarding, learning and development, and workplace design. They did not receive a "problem statement" to solve, but instead identified, on their own, an issue they saw needing attention or reimagined the type of experience they want to have at work.

By the time the breakathon ended, participants had come up with 105 ideas, each one accompanied by a video. Many ideas dealt with onboarding, and the breakathon resulted in an overall revamping of that process featuring the development of a mobile app for new employees and their managers called You Belong@Cisco.

"This journey has been an incredibly rich one for us," with HR being able to do things differently, Katsoudas said.

Design Thinking at Work

Harvard Business Review has described design thinking as a concept that "empowers employees to observe behavior and draw conclusions about what people want and need." Design thinking was an underlying theme of the three-day conference.

Monday keynote speaker David J. Evans, c-author of the New York Times bestseller Designing Your Life (Knopf, 2016), said design thinking "is a process and series of mindsets." The same thinking responsible for new technology and products can be used in one's career and life—the focus of his book—as well as at organizations. 

"[It] can be used to solve some of the biggest challenges we have," Katsoudas said. Cisco also has used design thinking to reshape the organization and to concentrate on the employee instead of processes and launched a second breakathon in January, to assess HR skills and capabilities and seek manager feedback. 

Michael Arena, chief talent officer at General Motors and a member of the keynote panel, noted that "organizations that are adaptive know how to design for the flow of ideas, insights, and learnings into and across their organizations." That's where design thinking comes in, and he emphasized that design thinking recognizes that  one solution does not meet all employee needs.

Katsoudas thinks this individualized "one size fits one" philosophy is going to enable her organization to attract and retain the best employees and build the best teams.

"Our work is changing … [and HR] can lead the transformation of our companies," she said.

+ + + + + +

This article originally appeared on

The Authors: 

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor, global issues, OED, and diversity at SHRM. She is a frequent contributor to HR Magazine and is a top influencer in the SHRM LinkedIn discussion group. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a business writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, served as a managing editor of a Department of Defense journal, taught business communications, and served on the creative team for the 2002 Winter Olympics. She’s worked as an editor and reporter at newspapers around the country and has freelanced for media outlets such as the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @SHRMwriter​. ​