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EC18: Let's Talk 'Transformation'

It's been a frenzied, busy week at Enterprise Connect, with a host of compelling mainstage and breakout sessions, exhibitor product news being issued right and left, and a few wild parties and gatherings along the way. As I reflect on what trends the past few days have brought to light, I've continually found myself coming back to what Eric Krapf, EC GM and program chair, said during his chairman's welcome Tuesday morning: "There's a lot of change taking place in the enterprise communications industry at large."

And really, "change" almost feels like an understatement, doesn't it? The word I've landed on to describe the myriad developments and evolutions coming about in this industry is "transformation." And that transformation was highlighted in crystal clarity by Wednesday's mainstage participants.

Transformative Visions

Wednesday's program kicked off with Industry Vision Addresses from RingCentral, Google, and Avaya. RingCentral COO Dave Sipes focused on the gradual transformation in the way work is done: "We're working remotely, we're working with distributed teams, we're working globally, we're working from any device," he said. All this change has created a need to unify the experience between cloud PBX, team messaging, video and meetings, and the contact center -- something the company is aiming to solve with solutions announced last week, he added (see "RingCentral Ups Collaboration Ante").

Google's Diane Chaleff, who works in the Office of the CTO, Google Cloud Suite, focused her address on the transformation that machine learning (ML) is bringing to enterprise communications. For instance, she showcased how Google's Jamboard leverages ML to convert handwritten notes to plain text and clean up drawings. In other G Suite products, ML is improving speech-to-text capabilities for note-taking, enabling the scheduling of meetings with the help of bots, and working on the network side to ensure crisp audio in calls.

"One final note," Chaleff said, in concluding her talk, "it's critical to remember what doesn't change. The key in all forms of communication is to maximize human ingenuity. Get the junk stuff out of the way and leverage machines so people can do what they do best -- be creative."

With Avaya, transformation hits home, as the company has spent the last year moving in and out of bankruptcy, and "transforming the business," as Laurent Philonenko, SVP & GM of Solutions & Technology at Avaya, said in his talk. "And of course, transformation means openness and integration," he later added, pointing to several of the company's recent product developments and partnerships around cloud and mobile.

Avaya's Laurent Philonenko on stage at Enterprise Connect 2018

"Our mission is to help you, our customers and partners, create new connections, create new experiences supported by new technologies," Philonenko concluded. "We will do this by offering you an evolution path, by staying true to our open strategy, by simplifying and automating our solutions, by associating instant gratification with functional richness, by making sure that we keep bringing you solutions that you can depend on to run your business and innovate for the long term. ... This is the new Avaya."

A Winding Road to Enterprise Transformation

Of course, transformation doesn't happen at the speed of light for all organizations. For many, the path is much more gradual, as discussed in the mainstage panel, "Has the Software-Communications Revolution Finally Arrived?," which included executives from 8x8, Cisco, Ribbon Communications, Microsoft, Twilio, and Vonage.

"It's important to think from the end user in," said Vonage CEO Alan Masarek. "All customers are going through some form of transformation," emphasizing that the end user should be the focal point in navigating disruptions like that of transitioning from hardware to software a la digital transformation.

The main takeaway: While transformation is underway in organizations in many different forms, every enterprise -- no matter what they're working to transform -- will go at the pace that works for their business and their users. As co-moderator Zeus Kerravala said, "The roadmap from here to there isn't easy or obvious." Ultimately, the vendors that find a way to blend the old with the new to provide an easy path to transformation may be the ones that win the enterprise.

Microsoft and Facebook Talk Transforming Products

The keynoters for the day were veteran Microsoft and newcomer Workplace by Facebook. Bob Davis, Microsoft's corporate VP for Office 365 Engineering, took the keynote opportunity to talk about how the company has worked to transform (there's that word again!) its Teams and Skype Room System product lines with "intelligent communications" -- efforts for which Microsoft won Best of Enterprise Connect 2018. Outside of Teams, however, he called out solutions like Windows Hello, which uses facial recognition to allow users to sign in to their PCs.

During the keynote, Davis and his team also showcased some new hardware from Microsoft and its partners, AudioCodes and Yealink. He also announced a "new category of devices" that he called mobile phone stations, which serve as docks of sorts for smartphones, featuring wireless charging and integrated "Teams button" for one-click access to the Teams mobile interface.

In the last mainstage session of the day, EC newcomer Frerk-Malte Feller, director of Workplace partnerships at Facebook, came onstage to talk about the company's vision for the future of work. "I'm not the first person to show up here to talk about this," he said, acknowledging the many who came before him to discuss the same thing. "So why should you listen to me? Why is this different?"

Workplace by Facebook's Frerk-Malte Feller on stage at Enterprise Connect 2018

To explain, Feller shared an analogy: Napster came into being in 1999, intending to transform the music space, but petered out and was defunct within four years. Then Spotify came on the scene in 2008 and Apple Music in 2015, both of which have been very successful in essentially the same thing Napster was attempting a decade earlier. "These companies solved music; they transformed it," Feller said. "The need for people to have music at their fingertips is very real. Ultimately the experiences were created that worked. So my message is, don't dismiss a trend just because the initial execution didn't work."

Enterprises everywhere are trying to find new and better ways to do work, improve productivity, and transform their businesses. If an organization has tried one route toward this end and been unsuccessful, that doesn't mean that the idea is moot. Facebook has taken the same user experience that has worked in its consumer site and carried that over to Workplace; and Feller believes it is this inherent familiarity and ease of use that has led to more than 30,000 companies around the globe adopting Workplace.

"You need no demo to Workplace," he said. "... And it results in very high adoption in end users."

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