Cisco UK and Ireland CEO David Meads: “Everyone has to be connected, but in doing that you cannot create a digital divide.” (Photo courtesy of Cisco UK and Ireland)

Foreseeing a global pandemic is not in any business leader’s job description. But perhaps the most vital skill for today’s CEO is the ability to pivot priorities according to a rapidly changing business landscape. On this measure, US tech giant Cisco’s UK and Ireland CEO, David Meads, has stepped up to the plate. Just three months into the job he was overseeing the biggest peacetime IT infrastructure challenge the UK medical sector has seen – fitting out a 4,000-bed field hospital in London’s ExCeL centre with world-class technology in just nine days.

The Nightingale hospital project was the furthest thing from Meads’s mind when he took on the CEO role, which was supposed to see him focus on navigating Cisco through the UK’s post-Brexit journey, and while that is still happening in the background, current circumstances have taken over, he says.

When plans for the Nightingale hospital were first announced, Cisco immediately engaged with Barts Health NHS Trust, with whom the company has a long-standing relationship. Cisco’s technology was very much at the heart of the project from an IT perspective, says Meads, who oversaw the technology infrastructure design underpinning the project to deliver the first 500 beds in a little over a week.

“We worked with the Trust and various partners to locate, build and deliver the equipment to produce a secure and viable network infrastructure,” he says.

Cisco subsequently used the design model as a blueprint for other NHS Nightingale hospitals around the UK, then in North America and a number of other European countries, all within a timeline Meads considers “remarkable in every respect”.

Planning for a new normal

Part of Meads’s role now is to reimagine what the workplace and workforce will look like on the other side of the pandemic. A recent survey by research and advisory firm Gartner found more than three-quarters of chief financial officers suggested they will have more staff working remotely post-Covid-19. In fact, a week before lockdown Cisco took the decision to implement a mandatory work-from-home policy for 95% of its global workforce. The overnight transition was virtually seamless for the firm’s workers, with little to no effect on productivity. Meads admits it was “less seamless” for some of Cisco’s customers.

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All of which suggests a fast, secure and robust broadband network in the UK and Ireland will be crucial going forward.

“People are using technology in a way they perhaps didn’t before, with all generations now using collaboration technologies, for example, when they might have been more reticent in the past,” says Meads. “There is now a greater awareness of the wider issues such as security – where it might have been top of mind for businesses, it had not been a priority in the household.”

In other words, the business needs are becoming more aligned with the needs of the general population – and Meads understands this shifting dynamic.

“Everyone has to be connected, but in doing that you cannot create a digital divide; there has to be digital equality, so full connectivity for all,” he says.

The UK and Ireland needs an effective broadband network that is affordable and robust enough to enable home working for everyone who needs it, according to Meads.

“Of course, it is going to vary from one street to another, and that is not to say there cannot be basic or premium options, but there has to be that element of choice,” he says. “It can’t be that you are not connected because of where you live.”

A digital drive

The challenges ahead give firms such as Cisco a particular relevance at this time of crisis because of how technology is being brought to bear, according to Meads, who sees it less in terms of an opportunistic business case and more a matter of the private sector’s responsibility in driving digitisation forward. He firmly believes that the private sector has an increasingly important role to play in harnessing the opportunities for change – one of the few good things to come out of the crisis.

“I am excited about the potential to address some of the shortcomings the UK has around digital readiness and we have an opportunity, if we choose, to grasp it and do a bit of leapfrogging,” he says.

But what would that look like? Cisco is already helping countries accelerate their rate of digitisation, a concept the company has been pursuing for many years with its various global smart city initiatives. Cisco has been working with UK locations including Hull, Manchester and Newcastle, partnering with the public sector to build pilot proofs of concept as to how technology can digitise industry across all sectors, including transportation, traffic management and waste, to name a few.

The work will continue, but the global pandemic has highlighted the need to urgently move forward on national digitisation projects. Countries that have fared relatively well through the pandemic, including South Korea and Singapore, are among the most technologically advanced in the world. In fact, GlobalData’s 2020 Technology Preparedness Index ranked South Korea and Singapore as the top two technologically advanced nations for ICT out of 100 global FDI locations. The UK ranked 13th, so Meads has his work cut out.

A private role

Though the private sector will invariably drive the UK’s digitisation improvements, Meads says the Covid-19 crisis may give the government its cue to make ICT infrastructure a priority. Of the UK Government’s pledge to connect its entire population by 2025, Mead says: “The private sector will have a role to play, but clearly there is going to have to be a review of the policies and timelines the government has set.”

Meads is no stranger to establishing a rapport with governments and believes good private and public cooperation is key. Having spent the past decade living across the Middle East and Africa running Cisco’s operations in these regions, he spent much of his time establishing government relationships in 18 countries. The size of the business he now oversees in the UK and Ireland is about the same as his previous role, but the smaller geographical footprint means he hopes that he can go “much deeper into the detail” and be more impactful in terms of what Cisco can help government and society to deliver.

Navigating these public and policy challenges in his home country will certainly be different, but fighting for greater prominence of all things ICT against a backdrop of competing priorities is a familiar battle for Meads. Except that in his new role he already has a shining example under his belt.

“Though Nightingale doesn’t represent the scale of a national IT infrastructure network, it proves the art of the possible,” he says.