The Cisco Learning Network

Successful Managers Share Their Secrets to Starting and Maintaining Well-Traveled Sites

By anyone’s estimation, the Cisco Learning Network (CLN) is hugely popular and successful. In a bit more than two years, Website visits have numbered 12.5 million with 313,000 registrations, 99,500 messages posted and 44.6 million page views.

In the future, communities like CLN will become more important as we get more globalized (yet have local consumption) while applications and content move to the cloud. Communities like CLN may well intersect more with virtual trade shows, like the ones offered by ON24 and Unisfair. To be fair, Cisco has already used those technologies successfully for its worldwide sales conference.

We sat down with the man that runs CLN to find out why the program is so successful. Joining interviewee Sean Iverson was one of CLN’s community manager, AnnMarcus.

When was CLN started and why?

Iverson: In May of 2008, it was actually an aggregation of several disparate sections of the Website that dealt with test preparation and professional exams. One of the vice presidents at Cisco was pushing for this, so we took these sites and put a Web 2.0 on the front end and made this more of a social learning environment. We did a soft launch in May of 2008.

What are the current goals for CLN, and how will they be measured?

Iverson: Let’s look at November 27th, a day I pulled some data to answer questions like this.We look at many metrics, like stickiness or dwell time, top landing pages, traffic by country and heat maps to show which pages are getting the most traffic. But here are four basic metrics, all cumulative from when we started in 2008. Site visits were 12.5 million, with 313,000 registrations, 99,500 messages posted and 44.6 million page views.

All of these numbers are pretty amazing. For comparison’s sake, the SAP developer network claims over 1 million users, but it is also a more mature community.

Marcus: But growing a strong community is more than just registration; it is focusing on what is of interest to the community and shifting the site focus to meet the needs of the community. In our case, the certification section is main one, and we use metrics to fine tune the site.

How did you start, and what was the magic sauce that made your community grow?

Iverson: We focused on building critical mass initially; now we try to track what is most important to customers. Our goals are to continue to drive additional registrations. One of the best ways is through CLN China, CLN Latin America, and focusing on content in languages other than English (which is really the worldwide technology language). We are getting a lot of people in China, and they are supporting us in this emerging market, by offering the same type of learning support in their native language. This allows them to compare notes and help each other.

The second way we are trying to reach our goals is through the CLN store, where we are offering more products, like practice exams and mobile learning modules on the iPhone.We also created the Mindshare game, which is designed to help people prepare students for their exams.

How many people at Cisco are involved in CLN (staff, not users)?

Iverson: Fifteen FTE, but I want to add a caveat on why we have such a small staff. CLN is very well behaved. Those in the community are very serious on obtaining certification, as this can be a big increase in salary. Cisco certification standards are high, the community does not have much tolerance for anyone goofing off, and much of the support and policing is done by the network.

What is the hardest part of managing a learning community?

Marcus: We have a very diverse community, mostly male, dedicated to IT networking. They come from multiple country cultures, different ages, different company cultures, different methods of training. The community tries to cater to their needs on both content and delivery.

It is important to provide the right content, in the right way, at the right time. We are also supporting ongoing work and developing new programs and new approaches. There are multiple levels on certification: CNET, CTNA (on routing and switching, or voice, or security), CTMP professional, CTIE (experts). It is surprising, but these highly certified people like giving back and like hanging out with these guys. It keeps them in tune with what is going on, and so is valuable.

Did you have some trouble internally getting acceptance for the CLN idea?

Iverson: The tech community within Cisco knows those that are trained to support Cisco Technology. That is how we initially got started in providing content and seeding the community.We are somewhat light on content from Cisco in the beginning, a lot of the departments and groups did not take us very seriously.

What did it take to start CLN, and what kind of executive support did you need?

Iverson: In Cisco,we have had strong iconic leaders like Fred Baker or John Chambers. They talked about their stories, and we also had support from marketing directors, general managers and vice presidents.We had a clear mission and sudden excitement, and there was a lot of initial energy invested by a lot of people. We were also very selective in who we hired. They had to understand and support the underlying social mission. It is because of this mission that so many experts in the community give back through their participation.

What kind of technology did you use for the CLN community? Did you built it yourself or buy it from a vendor?

Iverson: A bit of both.We acquired Jive ClearSpace. Today we use Jive 4.5, latest version, but we have customized it a lot. People depend on this site being up all the time (imagine if you were preparing for a certification test and you went on-line to do a practice exam, and it was not there). We try not to rev the technology very often and notify them well in advance.

We asked Jive for customized widgets, which they built for us, but have made available to other communities. A good example is the C13 widget, which allows a document to appear on a landing page. In Jive SBS 4.5, the newest version, it is now the ‘view’ document widget. It allows you to create a complex document for a community landing page. Another is the HTML widget, which hides the title and just displays the HTML.

What is the biggest challenge for CLN today?

Iverson: It is keeping a dynamic balance. Making sure the site remains relevant, organized and designed in a way that meets the needs of the customers. Product marketing managers need to keep the content fresh and relevant. We support forums that are open and lively. And we must strike a reasonable balance between free and paid content.

What will CLN look like in five years?

Iverson: Now it is critical for us to expand the number of certifications available, to find content that increases in importance, and to expand CLN to be a broader learning environment. We probably will keep the site similar in design and layout as it is now, but there are also new areas we are looking into, like: virtual training that would be online anywhere in the world; paradigm shifts;mobile; video; on-demand; and study groups.

What would you have done differently, and why?

Iverson: Put more emphasis on content preparation up front; do it earlier and faster. A community lives on new ideas, new content and responses. Early on, put more emphasis on content earlier and faster.

Marcus: The start-up team(which was much smaller than our team today) all had a good idea of the common mission. But I don’t think we understood the community very well and what their needs were.We are much better at that today, but if I had to do it differently, I would have learned more about the content myself. I was a consultant before working for Cisco and did not have deep knowledge of Cisco’s different certification levels.

Understanding that content better in the beginning would have allowed me to do a better job. I also would have worked more closely with learning partners that are participating in the community and I would have made their material available earlier, especially when it augmented ours.

—David Coleman is the founder and managing director of Collaborative Strategies. Contact him via e-mail at davidc@collaborate.com or via phone at (650) 342-9197.

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