Disclosure: Cisco is a client of the author.

Cisco (working with Forbes) this week put together a panel of experts to talk about the future of collaboration. The panelists included Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants; Edward Wagoner CIO Digital at JLL Technologies; Shari Slate, the chief inclusion collaboration officer and vice president for inclusive future and strategy at Cisco; and Aruna Ravichandran, vice president and CMO for Cisco Webex. 

Typically, with these kinds of roundtables, the most exciting comments come from the executives representing the customers; the vendor usually just wants to push product. This time, however, the most insightful comments came from Cisco folks, particularly Slate. Most users know what a product does, but they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what it could do; when it comes to communication and collaboration, people who focus more on human behavior should have a better sense of what is to come.

Two of the concepts the Cisco execs hammered on were empathy (by Ravichandran) and inclusion (by Slate). So let’s talk about those two ideas and what they mean for the future of collaboration tools in general, and Webex in particular. 

Inclusion and teamwork

It’s been my observation that when you have a team working together often, it is the oldest and most outspoken employee who drives the effort, regardless of experience. Winning an argument is more important than getting the correct answer. The working groups suffer for it — ironically often damaging the leader’s career — and women in particular are often ignored or cut out of the discussion.

In online meetings, the leader is often the moderator. It isn’t unusual for them to mute dissenting voices, or people who actually have a better understanding of what’s being discussed than anyone else.  It often seems like those with the least knowledge on a subject are the most rambling, which can waste the team’s time and lead to bad decisions. Cisco’s Webex can capture and report on who speaks and how often, providing statistics the employee and manager can use to try to address this problem.

I expect this will lead to an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven speaker ranking, where the AI, looking at a speaker’s background, rates their competency on the topic, and can warn the speaker to pipe down (or tell the moderator to mute the person).  A variant of this feature could also rank people on the call by expertise. Then the moderator, who would also be measured, would know to focus on those people for commentary, raising the quality of the conversation and ideally leading to more inclusion.

Corporate empathy

One of the things that seems to drive Cisco is this concept of empathy. For many workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, the work/life balance suffered. People struggled to manage kids and spouses at home, older kids suddenly out of higher education, and sick or aging relatives. Yes, productivity rose, but the personal cost was sometimes significant. 

A company generally understands which employees are likely to be under stress. And AI can increasingly do behavior analysis looking for people who aren’t engaging anymore; angry outbursts or tears; or other changes signifying problems at work or home. 

Using these tools to flag a problem for follow-up by management and HR means company resources can be mobilized to help those most in need.  Without disclosing specifics, a smart manager could even advise the team to avoid certain subjects and leave it up to the employee to share more if they want. 

Being able to spot employees under stress, coupled with focused remediation using company resources, could save someone from spiraling out of control. That feature is something I expect to see in the future.

Wrapping up

Turning a videoconferencing system into a more comprehensive collaboration and employee management and care tool will be critical to allowing people to continue working from home.  As a manager, you don’t have the same access to people as when in the office, so you need a tool to give you a heads up about problems before they cause unrecoverable damage. 

A company already has employee information and is capturing interactions between employees with tools like Webex already. Cisco appears to be pivoting to cover these bases and, based on what panelists said this week, will assure that future versions of Webex will drive greater inclusion and empathy than we’ve seen before. 

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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