Cisco's UC Update - Collaboration is Evolving, Maybe Further than You Think
This week Cisco presented their semi-annual UC update, and given how much UC is proliferating lately, it was a good opportunity to hear their latest thinking. While titled a "UC update," it was clear from the start that collaboration was the focus, for which UC plays a fairly minor role. This may not be what UCStrategies readers want to hear, but Cisco has enough market presence to do things their way and put their own stamp on how UC evolves.
The presentation was given by Joe Burton, CTO and VP of their Voice Technology Group, and he set the stage by explaining how collaboration is a core strategic direction for Cisco. In their view, collaboration has four key elements, starting with interoperable solutions to ensure that all the elements work together. Next is video communications, which really is no surprise given their major focus on telepresence, punctuated by the recent Tandberg acquisition. Third is "flexible consumption models", which is another way of saying that collaboration must support both on-prem and off-prem solutions, as well as supporting applications from both the business and consumer worlds. The last element in their model is ensuring secure collaboration, not just inside the enterprise, but between enterprises.
To fulfill this vision of collaboration, Joe talked about three focus areas, around which their news is based. The first two are product-based - UC Session Manager Edition (SME) and Intercompany Media Engine (IME) - and the third is end-user based - Customer Care. SME is actually complemented by CUBE - Cisco Unified Border Element, and together, this comprises the driver of their solution, which serves as a secure network demarcation point. The main idea here is that Cisco is offering a fully integrated environment for businesses to move off the PSTN and further adopt IP services and SIP trunking to support the likes of UC.
There is a good case here for enterprises to centralize network operations and consolidate trunking, both of which add up to less business for service providers and more for Cisco. No surprise here, really, and this approach is similar to how Cisco is approaching other growth markets with these complete solutions. The technology is very network-centric, and really best suited for enterprises, especially those managing multiple PBX systems and dial plans across multiple locations. I can see how this would appeal to IT managers who need to reduce costs and simplify operations, but it's very much about the network. Ultimately it does enable things like UC, but in this environment, the network drives everything. If you're just looking to add some form of UC to your business, this may not be the easiest path to follow.
Complementing SME is IME, which primarily focuses on creating a secure environment to support collaboration. IME is based on the ViPR protocol, and Joe talked about Cisco's desire for this to become an industry-wide standard. To advance that, they have submitted ViPR to IETF for ratification. The concept is similar to a peering federation, and becomes more effective the greater the number of companies supporting it. IME is in the market now, and he told us there are over 50 companies using it, with more than 50,000 phone numbers registered and in use. In many ways this sounds like a session border controller, and it's not clear to me if this is another network element Cisco is looking to co-opt into its overall vision for network-based collaboration.
Along those lines, the third element discussed was customer care, which is now being called Customer Collaboration. The underlying idea definitely makes sense - Cisco sees the potential in today's communications technologies to make the customer experience richer - no argument there. SME and IME help enterprises harness this with secure, robust network environment that supports the integration of the type of applications that many would call UC. As noted earlier, video is a big part of this, as is social media, and taken together, enterprises - contact centers in particular - can use all these tools to "elevate customer care" into a more collaborative experience. If you didn't think Cisco was in the customer care business, you need to think again.
This is all well and good, but as you can see, there is very little here specifically about UC, or even voice for that matter. UC is very much a part of Cisco's value proposition, but it's really an end result of the network environment all of this is creating. As with most things Cisco today, the story is about the network and the behavior that it drives is collaboration. If those two words are not in the conversation about Cisco, things won't go very far. Otherwise, there is a lot here for enterprises to pay attention to.
I'll leave the analysis of the underlying technologies I've touched on to others, but wanted to finish by focusing on one other aspect of this update. I think most of us agree that better tools and technologies for collaboration is a good thing, and UC is certainly part of that equation. We also know that enterprises struggle with social media and how far to bring that into the business collaboration mix. There is a lot of valuable communication going over these channels, and with so much of it being off network, enterprises have limited capability to monitor, let alone leverage this activity.
Cisco has taken steps to address this with their Network Media Capture Architecture. This wasn't explained much on the call, but basically this allows the network to capture and record all forms of communication - more specifically customer interaction - allowing for real time monitoring by administrators. I'm not a big fan of command and control hierarchies, especially when the desired outcome is open communication - and collaboration - but clearly, enterprises are concerned that the best conversations are taking place outside their sphere of influence. The reality is that tools like Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs, etc. have become magnets for conversation, and since most of this takes place in the consumer world, the idea of monitoring this activity sounds insidious.
Whether we're talking about UC as most of us know it, or collaboration as Cisco defines it, social media has become a core tool in the workplace and needs to be part of the bigger picture. Cisco definitely understands that, and addressed it a few times during the presentation. There's no doubt that social media can make the contact center more productive, and can provide very valuable indicators of how a company is perceived in the marketplace, but it's a bit worrisome to hear how all this can be captured by the network.
As an independent analyst, there's a Big Brother overtone here I'm not comfortable with, and in the wake of all the pushback against Facebook over privacy concerns, I think enterprises need to be very careful how they use this tool. Just because Cisco says this architecture gives you the ability to capture and monitor all these flows of communication, doesn't mean that you should. After all, these are your employees and your customers that are being monitored - whether they know it or not. It's not a given that enterprises will fully think this through, and I see just as much potential for downside here as with upside. I'm sure these are just learning steps along the way, but it says to me that the time has come to think about UC and collaboration beyond what is being enabled; we also need to take into account how it is being enabled and to what end.