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Cisco: Racing to Deliver a Connected Digital Experience



The following are some thoughts on the recent Cisco Collaboration Analyst Summit, which I tuned into remotely via Twitter, LinkedIN, and Facebook.


A Unifying Force


The Cisco Collaboration portfolio offers a broad but increasingly unified suite, and the evolution of Cisco Webex, now maturing into a unifying force across all workspaces and business processes, provides a compelling tale of digital transformation. The company has created a single application on top of a single platform, aiming at an intuitive, modularized, and cognitive end-user experience through the marriage of Telephony, Messaging, and Meetings.


The Cisco Webex Control Hub makes it all cohere, is a single pane of glass that gives IT administrators a holistic view of all Webex services, users, and devices, along with a reporting engine for better security and compliance. Cisco has put significant R&D into the administrator dashboard; it appears the detailed drill-down analytics provide meaningful insights into a customer’s organization. The Control Hub can be used as a single point of management across all Cisco Collaboration applications, deployments, and locations, and it’s a real differentiator. It’s not too much to suggest that the transformation of Webex has resulted in a platform that innovates the digital employee experience. And while “Enabling Workplace Transformation” is the ultimate goal for Cisco, improving the employee experience (EX) is sure to be one of the most prominent themes across the entire business landscape in 2020 (another good example is the realm of Managed Mobility Services, which I wrote about recently on No Jitter, here).


Clearly then, for Cisco, the days of myriad user interfaces are past. It has made real strides in portfolio consistency and simplification, improving both the user experience (UX) and the customer experience (CX). It’s emphasizing interoperability and integration with competing services (Microsoft’s collaboration offering being just one example), solution modularity, and enabling hybrid deployment. And while the solid UC and CC offerings are sold independently from each other, they are doubtless better in combination. Cisco is “Cloud First, not Cloud Only,” embracing a deployment agnostic model, providing on-premise, hybrid, and cloud solutions.


For the first year and a half of Collaboration Executive Vice President and GM Amy Chang’s now two-year tenure, her team has focused on the Collaboration and Calling portfolio. In 2020, the Contact Center business is set to receive more attention. As Chang noted during the event, “We had technical debt; we have cleared it out, and now we are ready to innovate.” Cisco, in other words, sees the Contact Center business as a key part of the company’s innovation story, particularly when it comes to a data-driven “Cognitive Collaboration” that is benefiting the entire portfolio, from Webex Teams and Webex Calling to Webex Meetings and Webex Contact Center.


Webex Contact Center


The Cisco Contact Center portfolio is built on the Webex platform, with access to common administration, user experience management, calling, and the cognitive resources of AI innovation. And that Cisco Webex Unified Communications and Collaboration platform supporting so many collaboration applications will now support the building of CCaaS as well. This is not the old Cisco premise-based contact center business. It’s “Cloud First and API First.” Clients large and small can now access the Webex Contact Center global platform under a single subscription. And even while the focus is on cloud-based implementations and migrations from on-prem to cloud, premise-based customers won’t be neglected.


In other words, the race to innovate has picked up steam. Cisco inhabits a crowded cloud contact center market of legacy providers marketing new cloud offerings, competitors featuring integrated, all-in-one suites for products, as well as chippy new companies with natively-built platforms that market ease-of-use. To help keep pace, back in October, 2017, Cisco further expanded its portfolio of UC and contact center offerings through the acquisition of BroadSoft, and absorbed BroadSoft’s cloud-based contact center offer for SMBs as well as additional contact center expertise.


Webex Contact Center is a microservices rich, “API First” CCaaS solution. Cisco is also taking on the enterprise class contact center market with Webex Contact Center Enterprise, available this month; it is global, scalable, and appears to be robust. After all, Webex Contact Center Enterprise is based on proven Cisco Contact Center Enterprise (CCE) architecture, which means it's enterprise scale, supporting from 2,000 to 24,000 concurrent agents per tenant, ideal for complex contact centers. The following features are worth noting:


1. Cloud delivery allows for flexibility, agility, and innovation

2. Highly extensible and customizable with add-on options and open APIs

3. Comprehensive administration portal for management by contact center staff

4. Cisco owned, managed, and operated data centers and cloud infrastructure

5. Full adherence to Cisco’s security and privacy standards


In effect, the contact center portfolio is both unified and modular. It includes a mix of premise-based and hosted/cloud offers that are also available in hybrid configurations. In fact, Cisco has gone to considerable lengths in the past year to make sure that clients can keep as much on-premise as makes sense, while continuing to develop both on-premise and cloud platforms.


A Cognitive Revolution


The Cisco Webex Unified Communications and Collaboration platform is meant to deliver common services to UC applications, meeting applications, and contact center applications. As such, that common thread will be the place innovation happens to the extent that AI and machine learning (ML) feed off all the diverse data Cisco has access to. Along with themes such as improving ease-of-use and interoperability, pervasive AI is another narrative to watch closely.


Cisco describes AI as an area that, while over hyped, is also underestimated. In fact, the race to build up internal and third-party cognitive resources is worth noting, as the company has assembled a broad team and portfolio to push that AI mission forward. As Sri Srinivasan, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Team Collaboration, emphasized at the analyst summit, “We have done a lot of AI and ML work to build better real-time analytics for Webex.” One might also say Cisco is racing to build-up its cognitive resources – consider the following developments that have happened in less than three years:


  • Conversational Interfaces. In May, 2017, Cisco completed the acquisition of MindMeld, a privately held artificial intelligence (AI) company based in San Francisco. MindMeld’s AI platform enables customers to build intelligent and human-like conversational interfaces for any application or device. The acquisition drives new conversational interfaces for Cisco's collaboration products, advancing how users interact with Cisco technology, increasing ease-of-use, and enabling new cognitive capabilities.


  • Cognitive Collaboration. In March 2019, Cisco unveiled its vision of “Cognitive Collaboration,” emphasizing that AI, ML, software, hardware, and the network can collectively help remove friction to improve workplace productivity. The new approach “slipstreams intelligence and context throughout all collaboration experiences,” including the contact center.


  • Intelligence Augmentation. In September, 2019, Cisco completed its acquisition of Voicea technology, a privately held voice-focused AI technology company based in Mountain View, California. Voicea brought transcription capabilities that blend AI and Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) that Cisco now leverages to enhance the collaboration taking place with its voice assets (including contact center, Webex meetings, calling, etc.). The Voice Assistant listens in on conversations carried out over collaboration platforms for the purpose of indexing and analysis. In turn, meeting attendees and non-attendees can quickly gather relevant information from digital meeting notes and insights, bringing action items to the forefront (meetings can be transcribed, highlighted, made searchable). It’s an example of Intelligence Augmentation (IA) in the contact center that aims to transform agents into “superagents.”


  • Speed-to-Insight. By October, 2019, Cisco completed the acquisition of CloudCherry, a privately-held Customer Experience Management (CEM) company based in Salt Lake City. CloudCherry brought capabilities in customer journey mapping, out-of-the-box integrations, and predictive analytics that provide “speed-to-insight” for companies to better decipher complex customer journeys and derive tangible business outcomes. As an internal Cisco AI offering, CloudCherry’s suite of Experience Management and Voice of the Customer is now labelled “Webex Experience Management.” In essence, the predictive analytics and journey-oriented solution helps companies understand the correlations between all the factors influencing the CX. Predictive analytics help agents make real-time journey modifications (such as up and cross-selling, expansion, discounts, service modifications, etc.) to meet customer needs and improve loyalty.


  • Google CCAI. Finally, other AI-infused features come through the partnership with Google Cloud Contact Center AI (CCAI), which became generally available in November, 2019. When it comes to the cognitive revolution happening at Cisco, customers are not locked into Cisco branded resources.


These AI technologies are being used across the entire suite, which means that the business pillar Cisco labels “bridges not islands” applies within the portfolio. And when it comes to the contact center, Cisco’s approach allows businesses to integrate different AI solutions into its contextual contact treatment and routing models. This Connected AI Framework allows for information collected in channels of automation to be presented to live agents should an escalation be required. Connected AI is the ability to infuse AI across customer contact channels and journeys by integrating it into different applications, from virtual assistants to RPA.


Ultimately, the fusing of new cognitive capabilities to the Webex platform from the likes of MindMeld, CloudCherry, and Voicea are enabling conversational tracking over time across up to seventeen different channels. So while the Webex brand and its battle against the likes of upstarts Zoom, Slack, and RingCentral has been getting a lot of chatter of late, one might argue that Cisco’s race to deliver a connected digital experience across contextual, seamless, capability-rich customer journeys for organizations that are being pressed to personalize customer interactions is where the real drama is.


Image credit: AnalyticsInsight.net

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