What to Expect from Cisco Collaboration

I get a lot of questions about Cisco Collaboration. That’s because the business group saw some significant changes in 2018. Cisco’s $4.2 billion (FY18) Collaboration division announced major changes at its Collaboration Summit last April. WebEx became Webex Meetings, Spark became Webex Teams, and both were to get UI and infrastructure upgrades over the months that followed.
 
A month after the Collaboration Summit, we learned that the unit’s leader, Rowan Trollope, left Cisco to head cloud contact center provider Five9. The announcement was coordinated with naming Amy Chang as the new SVP of Cisco Collaboration and the acquisition of Accompany, the “relationship intelligence” company she founded and led as CEO. There were a handful of other announcements at Cisco Connections last Fall -- the big ones being BroadCloud Calling was added to the Flex Plan, and a new Room Kit Mini huddle room solution.
 
What was missing were updates from the new leadership team. It was unclear how the new leadership team might revise the collaboration division’s vision and strategy. Well, we are starting to get clues — a lot of clues. No Jitter editor Michelle Burbick interviewed Chang last week. Late last year, Chang delivered her first keynote to an external audience at the Cisco Partner Summit. And next week, the new Cisco Collaboration team is hosting its first analyst event. Also, and most importantly, I had my first conversation with Chang.
 
Beating the System
Now one might think that I should be writing this post after the analyst event, because clearly I will have more information then. I’ve fallen for that before, and it doesn’t work. I don’t have advance knowledge of what the leadership team will present, but I expect the information will come with a short-term vow of secrecy.
 
Vendors often give industry analysts a confidential sneak-peek, and I expect they will preview to analysts what’s coming up at Enterprise Connect in March. Pro tip: Due to confidential agreements, the worst time to ask an industry analyst anything is during the weeks prior to Enterprise Connect. The best time to get unfiltered opinions are just after the event, and at Enterprise Connect’s closing Locknote session.
 
In an attempt to beat the system, I am offering my thoughts on Cisco Collaboration before the analyst event. I figure it’s better to express my opinion on what might be said than to keep quiet about what was said.
 
Let’s start with the leadership team itself…
 
Creating a Wartime Management Culture
Whenever senior leaders change, there’s a predictable series of changes that ensue which impact culture, vision, and staff. Most of the departures were direct reports to Trollope. Sri Srinivasan and Vasili Triant, both hired by Trollope, remain at Cisco today. Srinivasan heads Webex, and Triant leads Customer Journey Solutions.
 
New members of the leadership team include Aruna Ravichandran as the CMO for Collaboration. Ravichandran is new to Cisco and brings experience from CA-BroadCom and Juniper. The remaining additions to the Collaboration leadership team were found internally and include Cullen Jennings as CTO, Alexandra Zagury heading global sales, and Sandeep Mehra responsible for room systems. A few more appointments are expected.
 
Two important notes about the new leadership team. First, there is a stronger focus on software. There are several clues that Cisco Collaboration is prioritizing software-powered solutions with an emphasis on cloud and analytics. The hardware is critical to a comprehensive, software-delivered end-to-end experience.
 
Chang told me she is also working to create a wartime management culture. This was in reference to the peacetime and wartime approaches to leadership originally described by Ben Horowitz. “My greatest management discovery ... was that peacetime and wartime require radically different management styles,” Chang said. Interestingly, most management books describe peacetime CEO techniques while very few describe wartime.”
 
Famous wartime CEOs include Steve Jobs and Andy Grove as they implemented against-all-odds corporate pivots. I don’t get the impression Chang intends to do a radical pivot for Cisco Collaboration, but she wants her team to lead a collaboration revolution. She isn’t content with peacetime growth, and wants to revisit many of the foundations the business was built on. Wartime executives violate protocols, question assumptions, and obsess about details. She’s signaling a willingness to disrupt her own business to accelerate growth.
 
Zeroing in on Cognitive Collaboration
Chang may be new to the collaboration space, but she has a strong background in technology and business. She was a Cisco Board member 2016–2018 (resigned when she took the SVP role). She has experience from McKinsey & Company, eBay, and Google. She holds two degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford.
 
Most recently, she was the founder and CEO of Accompany, which as I mentioned above, is now part of Cisco. Accompany was developing a “digital chief of staff” application that gathers relevant and contextual information about business contacts. Accompany connects to a user’s email, calendar, and social networks, and then mines the data with AI-powered processes to create personalized briefings of participants in upcoming meetings. Accompany was a meeting preparation tool, not a meeting tool.
 
I didn’t fully appreciate it until after my Webex meeting with Chang in which Accompany likely pre-briefed her on me. She made references to several of my recent posts, tweets, and even threw in a few Trek references (she’s a TNG fan). She’s spent the last six years of her life working on meeting preparation, and I suspect she was just warming up.
 
The Cisco team has started to use the phrase “cognitive collaboration.” Clearly, the roadmap will be placing emphasis on AI-powered analytics. In addition to combining Accompany with Webex, Cisco has also been expanding the analytics platform within Webex. The data out there has the potential to improve the effectiveness and productivity of collaboration and business processes.
 
Let’s Talk Strategy
It’s not just about analytics. In Chang’s Partner Summit keynote, she presented five interconnected “pillars” that are guiding the unit’s roadmap and priorities. They are:
 
  • Bridges, not islands
  • Simplify everything
  • Win hearts and minds of customers
  • Cloud-first, not cloud-only
  • Quality and predictability
 
What’s really nice about these strategy pillars is how they complement each other. For example, when Cisco connected Jabber to Webex Teams, it effectively bridged islands. The improved, simplified experience along with the new look for Webex Meetings and Webex Teams is meant to win the hearts and minds of its customers and facilitate a cloud-first, but not cloud-only development strategy. Cisco is also working to improve interoperability with improved and expanded integrations into the Microsoft, Google, and Apple ecosystems.
 
We will know a lot more soon as details become public. One never knows how to interpret silence. It’s becoming clear now that they’ve been busy at Cisco, and we are in for an unveiling in terms of both updates and roadmap. I know the company has been steadily expanding its development teams. I’m predicting a significant number of changes that align the hardware with more sophisticated, intelligent, and consolidated software. It’s not just about cloud-delivered software as a service, but cloud-enabled collaboration that leverages emerging technologies to increase intelligence and analytics.
 
Right or wrong, we’ll know soon enough. Amy Chang will be introducing herself and her strategy during her Enterprise Connect keynote at 10 AM ET on Wednesday, March 20. If you haven’t yet registered for Enterprise Connect, coming to Orlando, Fla. March 18 to 21, do so now to take advantage of the Early Bird Rate. Use the code NJPOSTS at checkout, and save an extra $200.
 
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.