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20 October 2012

The Olympic Legacy

Tag(s): Sport, Business

A year before the 2012 London Olympic Games I wrote a fairly gloomy piece about the prospects. (Countdown to the Olympics 30th July 2011) I criticised the cost, warned of the disruption and questioned whether the legacy would all be delivered. Well, I was right to criticise the cost, a permanent secretary at the time has told me that it was never properly budgeted at the time of the bid simply because they did not expect to win. On the disruption I was wrong but not in the way one might think. In fact the Games were so disruptive that they displaced normal activity. Tourism was down as visitors to London stayed away concerned about all the warnings including those from official circles. On the legacy it remains to be seen, but remember what was promised: a Games that would inspire the next generation to take up sport. Unfortunately there just may not be the capacity to provide the means. Building world class stadia is not the same as providing opportunities throughout the land for kids to take up cycling or handball or whatever sport actually did inspire them.

But I must eat some humble pie as many others are doing. While right on some of the facts I was wrong on my overall conclusion. I suggested that ‘on balance it just does not seem worth it’. The Games and the Paralympic Games themselves were a triumph for this country. Everyone has his own stories to tell about a personal experience perhaps of unexpected courtesy and camaraderie or the idea that the most wanted kid’s present this Christmas is a wheelchair!

Let me tell two stories- one about Cisco, the worldwide leader in networking, and the other about the University of Bedfordshire where after six years’ service as a Governor I was recently appointed as a member of Court.

At a recent Criticaleye breakfast event in the City which I attended,  Phil Smith, CEO of Cisco UK, told a small group of senior businessmen about Cisco’s decision to sponsor the London Olympics. Cisco is entirely a B2B company. While everyone uses its products consumers don’t buy them. Normally Cisco would leave sponsorship to consumer facing companies. What sponsorship they have done is largely local, possibly not much more than a vanity project for the senior management involved. But they saw an opportunity with the London Olympics, not just as a UK event but as a global one.  Phil could probably have justified it within his annual sales of $1 billion or so but chose to advocate it to top management in the US and get their support. There were three elements to making it a success: delivery, relevance and belonging.

Delivery was important. The Games were the most connected ever. Cisco set out to deliver world class service to the 4 billion people around the world who would connect with the event in some way. The London Games had more than 30 times the network capacity of Beijing as there has been an explosion of data consumption with YouTube, smart phones, 3D TV, social media, Wi-Fi and so on.  Even despite careful preparation over a two year period when the athletes arrived in the village for the first time the network melted as they all hit their iPhones, downloaded their videos and all the other stuff they were not doing just four years before.

Cisco as a US based multinational wants to be seen as part of the UK, not just selling in to it. I understand this motivation very well as we had the same philosophy when I was at Sony and it drove much of our behaviour including our marketing. Cisco set out to create a legacy programme. They set out to create value in kind at over 100 locations. They were involved in supporting ticketing, scoring and communication operations. They set up the British Innovation Gateway encouraging skills development, innovation, entrepreneurship and growth.

They sought ways to make it relevant to customers by talking about what they can make possible rather than what they make. They asked questions like how does health care or banking etc change as a result of developments in technology. They built Cisco House on the roof of the Westfield Shopping Centre next to the Olympic Park. In this they demonstrated their capability with an imaginative 3D tube journey narrated by Stephen Fry. Here they entertained CXO level customers from all over the world. On feedback surveys this facility scored 4.9 on a 5 point scale. The partners of customers were heard to say after the experience 'So that’s what you do!’

The third leg of the strategy was to instil a sense of belonging in employees. The level of engagement over the two years of preparation was intense and the employees became hugely proud of the company’s and their own involvement. Phil thinks that noone really loses at the Olympics. He received about 20 handwritten letters of thanks from CEOs of major customers all saying that this was the single best experience of their lives. This has completely reoriented the relationship he and his colleagues enjoy with their top 500 customers and it is clear that the investment, measured in tens of millions, will pay off with relatively small percentage increases in business.

The global CEO of Cisco, John Chambers, who has been in post for over 20 years, rarely spends more than two consecutive days in any country he visits in his company jet. But he spent an unprecedented six days in London thoroughly impressed with what the British nation had achieved. When interviewed he was asked if he was a Brit. He replied ‘No, but I wish I was.’  Phil is confident he can use this increased appreciation of what the British can do in his negotiations within the company.

Phil is conscious that there could be a cliff after such a sustained high. He is keen to maintain the momentum and will focus on the legacy programme. This includes producing workbooks for school students in Science and Maths. The workbooks contain Olympic themes such as how do you calculate angles in the throwing events.

Cisco, of course, has massive resources and could commit them to such a project. The University of Bedfordshire has a fraction of such resources. But it does have people, a leading department of sport science and excellent facilities at its Bedford campus in sports medicine. At our recent Court meeting Dr John Brewer, the University’s excellent head of sport and also the head of British handball, told us that the University hosted one national Olympic team and no less than 13 Paralympic teams, more than any other University.

The British Universities athletes had run their own competition as the first live test of the Olympic Stadium and among these was a female pole vaulter from our University. Over 300 students volunteered for the security roster while many others became Games Makers. Two of these Games Makers described their experiences and they were truly motivating. One young lady lives out at St Neots, 60 miles from London.  For the duration of both the Olympics and the Paralympics she had got up early to catch a train at 6am, arriving at the Olympic Park at 7.30. She would then work through until after at 11 at night returning home exhausted well after midnight.

No doubt the Health & Safety Executive would have had something to say about all this but she would not have missed it for anything and has built up some capital of satisfaction that will last a lifetime.

So there is a legacy. I’m not sure that it is what was planned. That remains to be seen and Lord Coe has the task at national level of delivering on that. But from the examples I have quoted here it is clear to me that the legacy is greater than that. It is a restoration of the belief that together we can achieve great things in Britain. Organisations with enlightened leadership and passionate staff can build on that belief to restore some of the country’s prosperity. And all those touched by the experience, as Games Makers and other volunteers or just as spectators, have also seen the demonstration of what can be done with social capital.

I am happy to eat some humble pie if that is to happen.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

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