Cisco Webex Sharpens Focus on Hybrid Work

Former market leader bids to regain its crown

This week Cisco hosted its annual customer and partner event, Cisco Live, where the company made several major announcements relating to its enterprise collaboration portfolio, Webex.

2020: A Difficult Pill to Swallow

There’s no doubt it’s been a rollercoaster ride of a year for Cisco. The global shift to remote working brought about by the pandemic catapulted online meeting solutions like Cisco Webex into the limelight, massively accelerating the trend of video-based communications that Webex has been pioneering since the mid-1990s. In April 2020, Cisco — which bought Webex for $3.2 billion in 2007 — announced with great fanfare that it had hosted 14 billion meeting minutes during March, double the volume in February. This rose to 25 billion in April as the impact of the pandemic became fully apparent.

However, over time it became clear that these impressive growth rates paled in comparison with those of competitors Zoom and Microsoft Teams, with the former seeing growth of 2,900% in daily meeting participants in just three months, and the latter adding 12 million daily active users in just one week at its peak. By the end of 2020, it was clear that Cisco was rapidly losing its long-held market share, with CCS Insight’s Employee Workplace Technology Survey, 2020 showing the extent of Microsoft’s and Zoom’s growing dominance.

The Road to 10X

Cisco was in urgent need of a rethink. In December 2020 at its inaugural WebexOne collaboration conference, the company launched a new all-in-one Webex app along with a new hybrid work-ready strategy, dubbed 10X, which aims to make remote meetings 10 times better than in-person ones, as well as improving in-person experiences tenfold too. The company has massively accelerated its investment in the Webex portfolio, with 400 new features introduced since September 2020, along with the acquisitions of Slido, the maker of a polling and question-and-answer app, and IMImobile, an omnichannel customer communications provider that will augment Webex’s contact centre offering.

This week’s Webex announcements at Cisco Live build on this momentum, reinforcing the strategic focus on hybrid working and ensuring inclusivity in online meetings and collaboration. The first announcement was a series of expansions to Webex’s People Insights capability, providing personal, team-level and organization-wide insights into people’s use of Webex, with a view to helping individuals and leaders improve employee well-being, increase efficiency and maximize employee engagement at work.

Similar in concept to Microsoft’s MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics dashboards, which are now rolling into Microsoft Viva, these capabilities are part of a growing trend among collaboration technology providers to use product usage data to help improve the employee experience — not just their experience of technology, but their overall working experience — by identifying and highlighting behaviour that may be cause for concern or that can be easily changed once recognized.

The first of these expansions to roll out in mid-2021 will be Personal Insights, which gives individuals private and personalized metrics on their use of meetings, such as how many meetings they attend and how long they are, how often they join on time, whether they turn on video in meetings, whether they are messaging while attending meetings (and therefore not fully engaged in the meeting), and how long they speak in meetings, for example. Powered by Webex Graph, it also shows how many meetings the person is hosting or attending outside working hours, or those without an agenda, for example, as well as cataloguing time spent with direct reports and allowing the individual to book focus time in their calendar.

Coming later in 2021, the Team Insights dashboard will give people an anonymized view of the collaboration habits of their team as a whole, and Organization Insights will provide a companywide perspective.

Cisco positions these features as a way for businesses to handle the burgeoning stresses on employees and teams caused by long-term remote work, empowering employees to gain a better understanding of the behaviours that affect their own and their colleagues’ well-being. It is also a nod to the growing recognition of video meeting fatigue, which was highlighted as a major challenge of remote working by almost a fifth of employees in our recent survey research. That said, Cisco’s approach seems to be to encourage people to switch video on in meetings, rather than to help them determine the best times to turn it off.

In a second announcement, Cisco unveiled a preview of People Focus, a new capability coming initially to Webex devices, designed to improve the experience for hybrid meetings in which some participants are remote and others are together in a meeting room. Employing machine learning capabilities, the video feed from the meeting room is split to re-frame each attendee in the room as an individual participant, helping to make the meeting more inclusive and engaging for remote attendees. A similar feature, Smart Gallery, was announced by Zoom in October, although it has yet to become generally available.

Good Progress, But Still Plenty to Prove

Both these new features — along with the many other capabilities introduced in recent months — are positive steps, and highlight the determination and investment in Cisco to recover from its earlier complacency and missteps. However, both announcements are for capabilities that Cisco’s competitors have already announced (if not actually delivered yet), highlighting the challenge that the company faces. The market is moving so quickly that it will be difficult for Cisco to reclaim its title as leading innovator here — and it certainly has long been an innovator in this space; many of the new features in Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the past 12 months were introduced simply to catch up with Webex. However, now Cisco’s competitors seem to be writing the agenda, and it’s proving hard for Webex to set itself apart.

It makes a lot of sense for Cisco to be concentrating on hybrid work; it plays well to the company’s many customers with on-premises or hybrid Webex Calling deployments, for example, and builds on Cisco’s early investments in meeting assistants and room control devices (as I noted in my recent Insight Report on back-to-the-office tech). However, I’d like to see the company look further ahead to provide a vision for the next five years. How will it help support workplace transformation beyond the shift we’re facing in the immediate future?

At the same time, it’s important for Cisco Webex to become more conscious of its position in the wider landscape of employee applications, and integrate more creatively and imaginatively with the multitude of apps and systems that employees use every day. This is an area where Microsoft and Zoom are investing heavily, and we have heard little from Cisco here so far. Cisco has an impressive heritage in enterprise collaboration, but it still has work to do to show that it can once again lead the market.