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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Switched on to new ways of working by CISCO in Scotland

Switched on to new ways of working
DOUGLAS FRIEDLI
INTERVIEW: GORDON THOMSON, CISCO

GADGETS and software are part of the day's routine for Cisco's Gordon Thomson, but one pioneering piece of kit manufactured by a rival has caught his attention.
According to an e-mail flashed to his PDA that morning, the telecoms software giant is to sue Steve Jobs' company Apple over its use of the name iPhone, a brand already used by Cisco. The lawsuit could run and run, especially as American lawyers are involved, and there are big stakes to play for. But for Thomson, this will be one piece of business he will happily leave to his bosses in San Jose, California. The row will rumble on while he gets on with his job running the company's operations in Scotland.
This is his first day back at work after he was struck down by a flu-like bug just before New Year, but he seems to have recovered fully. Chatting over a coffee in the Palm Court bar in Edinburgh's Balmoral Hotel, he speaks with passion about the power of technology to transform Scotland's business performance.
Unusually among the Scottish bosses of international technology groups, Thomson is responsible for selling to local clients as well as managing the local production facilities.
Cisco has made a habit of snapping up nascent Scottish technology which Thomson views as an under-exploited feature of the economy. The firm has about 70 software engineers in Cumbernauld - once home to Atlantech, the company bought from Scots entrepreneur David Sibbald in 2000 - and a similar number in Leith, at the offices of the former Spider Systems, acquired from another Scots duo, Martin Ritchie and Nick Felisiak.
Edinburgh-born Thomson is embedded in the Scottish tech business scene, as a board member of ScotlandIS, the software trade association, and as a part-time lecturer at Strathclyde University's Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, but he wants to see Scotland take more advantage of technology to grow the economy.
"People talk about a glass ceiling for businesses in Scotland," he says. "We produce a lot of small businesses, but how do they develop into the Microsofts or Ciscos of the future? What is constraining them? I believe the problem is that we do not harness technology enough.
"Our productivity is growing more slowly than gross domestic product, which means that we have to work harder to produce less, which is frightening."
But using technology, he believes, can help indigenous companies to grow rather than waiting for the next footloose international investor to roll up, claim a grant and create a few hundred jobs: "We have to work smarter. This is not about attracting more inward investors to Scotland, it is about going out and collaborating on the global stage."
As Cisco's business is in providing a range of telecommunications, computing and video products, Thomson obviously has a vested interest in stimulating demand, but he also argues that, from a trade perspective, such things as videoconferencing and the internet can bring Scottish companies closer to their markets and help them to reduce costs.
Also on Thomson's prescription for a healthier Scotland is more sales staff - echoing a view expressed in Scotland on Sunday last year by Gavin Don, professor of entrepreneurial finance at the University of Edinburgh. Then, Don said sales people were undervalued and that a cultural change was required.
Now, Thomson says: "There has been a stigma attached to sales in the past. But we live in a world where products do not have unique selling propositions any more, or not for long. You have to differentiate yourself and you do that by being closer to your customers so that you understand their needs more."
Thomson speaks from a position of experience. His first proper job was as an advertising salesman at Thomson, the directory publisher (no relation), where he worked after dropping out of a history course at Strathclyde University. He enjoyed the cut and thrust of sales, but decided that technology was the way forward and joined Cable & Wireless, the communications group, in 1989. He stayed there for nine years, latterly managing contracts for the likes of Hewlett-Packard and British Airways, before joining Cisco, where he stepped up to become country manager for Scotland in 2001, replacing Maggie Morrison.
His time at Cisco has coincided with mixed fortunes for the US group, which was briefly the world's biggest company by market value at the height of the dotcom boom in 1999.
Its acquisition of telecoms software firm Atlantech for £114m made Sibbald a rich man and raised Cisco's profile in Scotland. And in 2001, the company hit the front pages after Glasgow city council sources said it was planning to build a European headquarters, housing 2,000 staff, on the banks of the Clyde.
But the news came just as the sector was about to plunge into a downturn and the idea was shelved. In any case, Thomson says, there was never any intention to expand the workforce significantly: "That was all about consolidating our offices on to one site, it was a real estate thing, but the story did not come out right."
Two years later, the normally reserved Atlantech founder Sibbald talked of his "sadness" when Cisco said that jobs were to be cut at his former plant. But according to Thomson, the Cumbernauld site is now heavily in demand. It produces software which helps telephone companies such as BT manage the traffic moving over their networks. "The operators are investing a lot in this area now," he says.
Thomson is an enthusiast for virtual meetings and at one point he chuckles: "Slap me if I talk about any Cisco products." But that does not stop him detailing Cisco's latest videoconferencing concept, TelePresence, which will enable realistic three-dimensional moving images of people to take part in negotiations, boardroom discussions or conferences anywhere in the world. "It is going to have a massive impact over the next few years. It will look like you are really having a conversation with someone in the room."
It sounds like the death knell for business class travel, although Thomson admits he is still a frequent flyer, and will travel to the US at least six times this year to attend various Cisco conferences and directors' meetings. He says the schedule would be far more gruelling without technology: "I could be on the plane three times a week if I did not have video technology."
The most important thing happening in technology now, he says, is "Web 2.0", a catch-all term for the new generation of online services which are personalising the internet. Sites such as YouTube and features such as blogs are transforming the internet from a monolithic block where you take what is on offer to something more participative.
"To give you an example, my son wanted a pair of trainers for Christmas. Rather than going to JJB Sports and choosing what was on offer there, he went to Nike.com and designed his own pair of trainers. What Nike has done has individualised its service and attracted my son to buy from them.
"Web 2.0 is about communicating more effectively. It means business can collaborate more effectively, and it means intellectual property from Scotland can be more accessible globally."
After enthusing for 45 minutes about the wonders of technology, Thomson has a moment of self-consciousness: "I do enjoy other things beyond IT," he says. "I was Scottish secondary schools champion golfer in 1984. If I wasn't doing this, I would be trying to make a living as a professional golfer."
Using only the latest, most technologically advanced clubs, no doubt.

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