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Cisco Cognitive Collaboration: Where AI Meets 'Marketing'

You only have to read the business press to recognize that interest in artificial intelligence (AI) is booming, and companies are itching to capitalize on it. The downside of that is that the marketing departments in our enterprise network vendors have made that same connection and are doing all manner of contortions to associate their offerings with AI.

In the enterprise communications business, we can see three primary areas where AI might have an impact: core infrastructure, contact center, and lastly, unified communications and collaboration (UC&C). Core infrastructure generates volumes of performance, security, and outage data, and AI could conceivably augment our current performance reports, trouble ticket analyses, and log reviews. 

For the contact center and related customer experiences, as there is real money to be made, the business of deriving actionable marketing intelligence from location data, Web activity, and contact center information is already well developed, and is clearly running up against privacy boundaries. Most of those capabilities are highly refined, but they seem to be coming from outside of the contact center business.

The impact of AI for UC&C is more of a stretch, yet that’s what Cisco touted last month with “cognitive collaboration" during its keynote at Enterprise Connect 2019. While there were fleeting references to contact center and network diagnostics, Cisco was clearly trying to make the questionable leap from UC&C to AI. The result left me scratching my head about the relevance of this exercise.

 

Same Clowns, New Circus

I’m particularly sensitive to the idea of incorporating leading-edge buzzwords into meaningless marketing blabber -- I’ve seen it so many times. Remember 10 years back when “mobile” was all the rage and every vendor took pains to market itself as being “mobile first?”

At that time, the UC&C camp was trying to associate itself with the exploding popularity of the iPhone and vendors made valiant attempts to insinuate that what they were offering had something to do with that. In reality, what they were pitching (and demoing during every Enterprise Connect keynote) was a dead-end solution for “integrating with UC.”

That idea took the form of a mobile app for your smartphone to do what your phone already did: Make phone calls. The difference was that the UC&C approach offered a more annoying and intrusive way to do it. While a few vendors at EC19 were still flogging that dead horse, most have acknowledged that the horse is indeed… dead.

 

The Birth of Team Collaboration

With cognitive collaboration, Cisco is again reaching for this same playbook, only this time the image-enhancing insinuation involves AI -- a good buzzword, to be sure. As team collaboration tools proliferate, differentiating one from another is becoming more difficult. In the end, you can call it whatever you want, but it gets down to the old idea of trying to sell what you have (in Cisco’s case, the intellectual property acquired with “relationship intelligence” company, Accompany), rather than looking at what business users might possibly want or need.

Team collaboration is an interesting amalgam of old and new ideas. Vendors have combined audio conferencing, video conferencing, screen sharing, and persistent chat. Companies like Slack and Atlassian pioneered this persistent chat idea (the latter which subsequently sold its technology to Slack and exited the market). With an increasingly communications-rich platform, Slack is a dominant force, on a collision course with the likes of Cisco, not to mention Microsoft, Avaya, Mitel, and any of the growing legion of pure-play UCaaS providers. At the same time, these companies are now being challenged by new entrants like Zoom, which cut its teeth in the cloud video space and is now offering voice, too.

Each of these segments has its particular strength, and as the legacy PBX providers continue to move beyond their “desk phone” personas, they face increasing challenges from upstarts -- including but not limited to Slack in the chat space and Zoom in video and screen sharing. Many of the incremental differences are lost on buyers, so the need to “stand out from the crowd” intensifies. Enter cognitive collaboration.

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