Cisco invests in a workplace future that will make email prehistoric

14 Jan 2010

Global networking player Cisco is to invest €400,000 to back Irish PhD researchers who will endeavour to create the internet-centric future workplace where social media, unified communications and the semantic web will make existing office systems seem prehistoric.

The San Francisco communications giant, which employs 200 people in Ireland and has a cutting-edge R&D operation in Galway, is to invest €400,000 to support two PhD researchers at the Galway University-based Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) in creating future workplace tools.

The €400,000 project will develop new ways for the “enterprise of the future” to integrate information and make it easily accessible for employees.

Information formats

Today, a typical company has information stored across a variety of often unconnected formats, including documents, emails, instant messaging and wiki pages. DERI’s semantic search and integration technology will seek to more cleverly and usefully link information and make it accessible across the company.

“This joint project shows that the leadership of Irish-based research is recognised and valued by companies such as Cisco,” Prof Stefan Decker, director of DERI explained. “The results originating from research projects like these could help to secure existing employment and create new jobs in Ireland by providing us with a competitive edge.”

In recent months, leading internet giants like Google with Wave and with Chatter unveiled their visionary technologies that would combine social media with workplace communications and ultimately replace email, which has become a de facto workplace technology over the past 20 years.

But it seems Cisco is intent on going further. The company is already aiming to make its TelePresence technology available in every home and on every work computer and wants to combine the revolution in video with the revolution in other rich media content that social media has brought about.

“It is one thing having information, but another challenge entirely on how to integrate that information so that is easily linked, accessible and useful,” said Mike Conroy, general manager, Cisco R&D in Ireland.

Show and Share

Speaking with, Keith Griffin, a lead architect with Cisco who developed the ‘Enterprise of the Future’ project with DERI, explained that Cisco is already powering ahead with technologies like Show and Share and its Enterprise Collaboration Platform.

“The Enterprise Collaboration Platform is effectively a social network for the enterprise. It allows firms to link data across the key building blocks of an enterprise – people, communities and information. These are the three most common properties of an enterprise and what we’re trying to do is semantically link that data.”

Griffin described the €400,000 investment as “gift funding”, whereby the money is given to IRCSET who will then turn the investment into a number of scholarships. “This comes from the Cisco Research Centre which allows universities worldwide to apply to take part in research proposals. The purpose is to not only develop new technologies for Cisco but also help Irish-based students complete their PhDs.

“We will recruit the PhDs and structure the research and will focus on two students initially. The funding will cover their travel costs to conferences, the technology they need to invest in and the costs of completing the prototype.”

Griffin said that while email and standard phone systems are still the de facto workplace tools of commerce, the growth of the internet is spearheading change in the direction of unified communications, allowing workers to collaborate and communicate across a variety of systems.

“The term we use to describe this important change is pervasive communications – users don’t always have to have a PC or a phone. Wherever the system surfaces – whether it’s a photo or a name in a database – the user can choose how they want to talk to that person – whether it’s a voice call, an instant message, or a high-definition desktop video.”

Making it easier for workers

Griffin said that the two initial researchers will work on areas like the enhancement of social enterprise systems using structured web data. The ultimate goal will be to take advantage of the emerging semantic web and make it easy for workers in any enterprise to manipulate the internet and all the various communications tools at their disposal into a context-driven system.

There are so many tools and systems on the web today that will eventually filter into the workplace. You can share video on YouTube, you can share content with people on Facebook and LinkedIn, manage your contacts, have video conversations and write blogs. But how do you put all this into a traceable working tool that ensures people are productive?

Griffin agreed. “The whole concept of Web 2.0 is great for publishers but often results in information overload for the subscriber. These tools are generally great for creating more and more information but how do you deliver the right information to the right person in a timely way?

“This is at the heart of the semantic web – what someone is looking for. Semantic technology can help users to refine that meaning by linking the results and suggests to them what they need. Semantics … getting back to meaning via social connectivity. How can a system know that when a user is searching or communicating that they want a particular document, expertise, blog or wiki? That system has to be intelligent enough to communicate back to the users the right information.

“If workplace tools aren’t helping people to get the job done, then they are failing. Cisco’s vision is to overlay communications as a pervasive service using presence – there’s the expert, they are online, you can have a chat with them right now.”

Eye on video

Griffin believes that video will become an increasingly important part of the DNA of the enterprise in the coming years. “From our acquisition of Flip, which we use for meeting minutes to real-time video for unified communications, all of these things are being worked on in Galway right now.

“Our Show and Share technology, for example, is all about taking video and making it more enterprise-accessible but also intelligent enough to know what information must remain confidential and that must never be found on a public network,” Griffin said.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years