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Team Collaboration Shines at EC17

Team collaboration was all the buzz on day three of Enterprise Connect -- and with keynotes from Microsoft and Google on the docket, we can hardly be surprised.

But before we even got to the day's keynotes, conference co-chair Beth Schultz took the stage to announce the winner of the annual Best of Enterprise Connect Award: Cisco, for Spark Board 55, the interactive collaboration device the company announced earlier this year. That this year's winning product is one deeply tied to team collaboration says a lot about how this industry has evolved and where it's going. After all, this class of products/services only emerged a couple of years back, but has since taken off to the point where every major communications systems vendor now seems to have a team collaboration play.

Following the award presentation, executives from some of these vendors -- Unify, Atlassian, Microsoft, RingCentral, and Cisco -- joined Beth on stage for the panel session, "Messaging & Team Collaboration: Overhyped, or the Next Platform? " It was a lively session, with a large number of questions coming from the audience, which to me signifies that a lot of enterprise folks out there are still trying to sort through the variety of options and figure out the potential value to their enterprises.

"The experience " once again came out as a top talking point, with most agreeing that experience is core to their respective product strategies. Microsoft's Dan Stevenson, principal group product manager for Teams, argued that the three key components of a successful team collaboration app are the user experience, the platform, and portfolio, while RingCentral's Kira Makagon, EVP of innovation, emphasized that the unified experience the company has recently rolled out for its Glip solution is important in making the tool easy to use for end users.

When it came to the discussion of integration between these popular team collaboration tools from different vendors, Cisco's Richard Townhill, senior director, product management, suggested that users will always find a way to do what it is they want to do, pointing to APIs as key in allowing these users to integrate the things that they want to work together. "Tech is always evolving," he said, adding that people are always using different tools, and if there is a need that emerges to integrate or interoperate, the users will find a way to make it happen.

After the executive panel, Microsoft's Ron Markezich, corporate VP for Office 365, took to the stage to deliver his keynote. Microsoft made several announcements earlier this week around Skype for Business, which the company calls the "backbone for enterprise voice and video meetings in Office 365." For more details on those announcements, see "Microsoft, Partners Extend Skype for Business."

Of course, the Microsoft keynote wouldn't be complete without a mention of its Teams solution, which became generally availablejust two weeks ago. And Markezich delivered when he brought a couple of colleagues on stage to walk the audience through a demo of this new tool and how it fits in with other business productivity tools in Microsoft's portfolio.

As Markezich noted, companies will spend an estimated $1.2 trillion on digital transformation initiatives this year. And with Office 365, Skype for Business, and now Teams, Microsoft is working to deliver the solutions people need to get work done efficiently. The company has shipped more than 100 new features for these solutions in the last year, Markezich said, and "all of this is for us to work together with you to help you digitally transform your organization."

Google was up next to the keynote stage, with Scott Johnston, director for real-time communications, G Suite by Google Cloud, leading the charge. Johnston spoke about the paradox of productivity, noting that new tools keep emerging, but it's hard to understand if the tools really help the modern worker. To get a better understanding of how teams work, Google performed a study, called Project Aristotle, to find out "how much of work is spent moving pieces around on a board."

"Ideas are what move the needle, and we're spending too much time on mundane tasks," Johnston said. There's an unfortunate truth, he said, that productivity tools can waste our time, and it only gets more confusing when you add more people to the equation and look at teamwork specifically. Google is focused on helping teams accomplish their business goals as efficiently as possible, he said.

Johnston and team then demoed new enterprise-focused services announced earlier this month: Hangouts Meet and Hangouts Chat. Hangouts Meet is Google's take on a team collaboration solution, evolving from the Hangouts of old, adding a focus on experiences that bring teams together and keep work moving forward. As Johnston explained, the goal with Hangouts Meet was really to eliminate the friction we experience with teamwork -- make it plug-in free, one-click meeting access, instant loading, and optimize video and audio.

"If we're in a meeting, we need to get work done," Johnston said. "We need the virtues of a white board, and we need it in the cloud so everyone can participate." He then introduced the audience to Google's Jamboard, its own whiteboard device for team collaboration. Jamboard will begin accepting orders in May, Hangouts Chat is currently in an early adopter program phase, and Hangouts Meet is available now.

But the team collaboration buzz at Enterprise Connect is not limited to the keynote stage. It's coming up in conversations I've had across the show floor and in breakout sessions. In fact, just this week we saw new vendors enter the team collaboration fray. On Monday, ShoreTel announced ShoreTel Teamwork, its real-time collaboration tool focused on providing productivity to teams on the go. And just today, we heard from CafeX, which unveiled Chime Spaces for collaboration. Chime Spaces is aimed at enabling enterprises to work more efficiently with customers and teams.

While team collaboration tools may not be ubiquitous in the enterprise as of yet, with all this activity taking place in this space, this is one hot area to which enterprises are looking to get their arms around.

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