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What's Going On at Cisco?

Cisco rocked the UC&C/team collaboration worlds on May 1, when it issued a press release announcing its intent to acquire Accompany, an AI-driven relationship intelligence platform for finding new prospects and navigating the selling process. But the big news buried among the details was that Accompany founder and CEO Amy Chang would be taking on the position of senior vice president in charge of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, with current VP and GM Rowan Trollope leaving Cisco to become CEO at cloud contact center company Five9 (see "Trollope Leaves Cisco, Joins Five9").

What? Trollope's leaving? What's going on here?

Since the bomb dropped, the rumor mill has been running full throttle in an attempt to discern the deeper meaning of the shift. Trollope has been the "face" of Cisco's Collaboration Group for almost five years, and he's been very effective at selling us on what a great job it's doing.

Trollope is a top shelf "front man" -- good looking, great on his feet, clearly passionate about what he's pitching, and consistent. From all the times I heard him speak, the two themes I remember him coming back to time and again were design (for which Cisco won a bushel of prizes), and user experience, where the company has definitely stepped out from among the crowd of providers.

In light of this development, I looked back at the positive blog I'd written about Trollope's keynote at the Cisco Collaboration Summit a few of weeks back. The point I'd emphasized in that post was that Trollope had essentially endorsed an idea I'd been railing about for years: Low performance expectations in enterprise technology companies have yielded mediocre products, and manufacturers have to start aiming for higher standards, specifically the level of standards we find in the consumer space.

I took that to mean that Cisco had taken the positive step of embracing the challenge of performing up to those consumer product standards, and Trollope was now doubling down on that effort. Had I known at the time that this was his "swan song," maybe I would have looked at it differently.

I think Trollope was a hardware guy at heart. When he talked about user experience, Trollope, like Steve Jobs before him, seemed to understand that you had to have that hardware element to really give the user that complete experience. Cisco had done that in spades with its proximity pairing solution that uses ultrasonic technology and users' smartphones to associate with in-room video collaboration systems.

So why is Trollope gone, and why is Chang replacing him as senior vice president in charge of the Collaboration Technology Group? The obvious answer may have to do with the Collaboration Group's overall position inside of Cisco and its overall performance.

Collaboration in Cisco

In reviewing Cisco's most recent annual report, I found that the Collaboration Group represents roughly 9% of Cisco's total revenue -- that's still a $4.3 billion business. Cisco's core switching, routing, and data center businesses represent 52% of revenues, and if you add in the 6% of revenues from WLAN-related businesses, infrastructure products represents almost 60% of the company's total business. Those core business segments also drive a thriving services business that delivers another 26% of revenues. In other words, if we were looking at Cisco as a vendor of plumbing supplies and bathroom fixtures, most of Cisco's revenues would be found "behind the walls."


The Collaboration Group's revenues were flat for 2017, but Cisco revenue was flat across the board. Putting Chang in charge of the Collaboration Group seems to be shifting the emphasis to artificial intelligence (AI), the technology on which Accompany's customer relationship management (CRM) business was based. That comes on top of Cisco's recent $215 million acquisition of MindMeld, a company that makes AI-driven tools for developing conversational interfaces.

If there is a failure here, it may be in terms of failing to deliver on a vision. In 2014, Unify's Circuit kicked off the vision of team collaboration as the next wave in UC&C, providing a way for teams to store documents and organize collaborative projects as well as delivering traditional business communication capabilities. Since then, all of the UC&C suppliers have essentially bought into the plan.

Of course, a Cisco failure on this front could have wider implications as the obvious question becomes, "If Cisco can't pull this off, what hope do any of these smaller guys have?"

I'm not the only one who thinks Cisco has missed the boat in the team collaboration game. Team collaboration is happening, it's just not happening with our traditional UC&C suppliers. As Marty Parker of UniComm Consulting pointed out in his review of Cisco's Collaboration Summit a couple of weeks back, the Leader's Quadrant in Gartner's 2017 Magic Quadrant on Content Collaboration featured Box, Dropbox, Citrix, and Google -- but no Cisco. Microsoft did make the cut, but apparently on the strength of OneDrive for Business and SharePoint, not Teams, its team collaboration offering.

In the meantime, Slack is reporting its paid users hit 3 million and overall they have 8 million daily active users. Maybe Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins was looking for something more along those lines.


Half Full or Half Empty?

Marty Parker makes a great point in drawing the distinction between a meeting solution and a collaboration tool, but maybe better meeting experiences is all we should expect from a company like Cisco? When you get right down to it, Cisco makes solid plumbing products, and has a side business that involves putting IP phones on people's desks and video systems in their conference rooms. I give Cisco credit for doing that job well, as I summarized in a blog titled, "Team Collaboration: Move the Goalposts, Call It a Touchdown."

In IT, our job is to provide tools and services that people need to do their jobs, and the measure of our success is user adoption and ultimately the level of user satisfaction we deliver. Unfortunately, IT's "power of enforcement" today is largely limited to production systems and enterprise-mandated solutions for common problems like messaging or cloud storage, especially if we require tools with specific security mechanisms.

Beyond those core requirements, users are often left to their own devices in choosing what tools they will use to do their jobs. IT is "selling" its solutions in a competitive market, and the competition from the consumer space is intense. While he may be saying it from the outside looking in, Trollope was right, Cisco wasn't measuring up. The question is, will a new leader and an AI focus be the keys to turning Cisco's fortunes around?

In our field, change is not always a bad thing. This is tech, so you can't expect every new idea (regardless of how vociferously it's marketed) to be a home run. Making winners is a process of trial, error, and refinement. Maybe this team collaboration thing was too much of a stretch, at least for people who started with telephones. Water over the dam, but now it's time to start asking the business questions to move forward: What's salvageable? What have we learned? Where have we been successful? How can we build on that?

At Cisco, it looks like Chang will now be asking those questions, and we'll be interested to see the direction she takes. I'm at something of a loss to figure out where CRM fits into Cisco's plans, though some do see the potential for the company moving into the CRM space. Chang's expertise in communications and collaboration are something of a question, but if AI is the key to moving that business forward (a thesis yet to be proved), Chang at least has a leg up in that.

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