Makers of Collaboration Tools Turn to AI

June 25, 2019

Microsoft, Google, Cisco, and others are adding artificial intelligence into their wares in an effort to stay competitive in a hot market

Collaboration-technology providers, fighting to stay competitive in the fast-growing market, are turning to artificial intelligence to ease the pain of workplace and online meetings and differentiate their offerings. 

The big players in what is dubbed “intelligent collaboration” or “cognitive collaboration,” including Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Inc., have over the past year added AI-enabled services to their enterprise collaboration platforms.

Many are injecting smart software into collaboration tools designed to help organize meetings, invite attendees and provide information on their expertise, transcribe meetings and send follow-up messages when meetings are over, among other tasks.

This week, Cisco Systems Inc., which offers the Webex collaboration platform, plans to release a tool that provides more detailed information on meeting participants, based on data the software gathers online. The idea is to help people establish a rapport with clients or colleagues they might not even know by sharing tidbits of information, for instance, that their children attend the same school or what restaurants they like, said Lorrissa Horton, vice president, and general manager of Cisco’s Webex Teams.

The tool is part of a smart assistant within Webex that can identify upcoming meetings in a user’s calendar, ask if users want to join a meeting and sign them in when they are ready. It will soon include facial-recognition technology that can identify video-meeting participants and list their biographical info.

“We’ve been gathering data on exactly what users are doing and we’re using that data to build models,” Ms. Horton said. “All of this is tied to how to weave artificial intelligence into these capabilities.”

For Cisco, that is a rich source of data. An early entrant in the collaboration market, the company currently hosts some 360 million meetings a year on Webex, drawing together more than 130 million meeting attendees every month.

“Collaboration and communication between employees and with customers generate massive amounts of data and it contains tremendous value if properly analyzed,” said Praful Shah, chief strategy officer at RingCentral, a cloud-based communications and collaboration software maker.

He said companies are increasingly looking to generate value from every opportunity with customer engagement: “Applying significant automated intelligence to that process is going to be expected from leading enterprise cloud communication and collaboration solution providers,” he said.

Competition among these providers is heating up, putting pressure on them to offer new services. The global market for enterprise collaboration is estimated to have grown 12% last year to $2.4 billion and it is on pace to reach $3.2 billion by 2021, according to International Data Corp.

One indication of the market’s rapid growth was Slack Technologies Inc.’s banner public-market debut last week, which valued the 10-year-old startup at $23.2 billion.

Industry analysts say Slack’s success stems from the way it blindsided much larger competitors by pulling data from hundreds of enterprise apps into one real-time messaging tool capable of breaking down business silos.

“The problem with work communication is noise,” said Russ Fradin, chief executive of Dynamic Signal Inc., a mobile-first enterprise communications provider.

AI can help reduce that noise, he said, but only if it is fed enough data to accurately prioritize mountains of information: “Do you want that prioritization to happen based on a developer’s interpretation of what’s important?” Mr. Fradin asked.

Larry Cannell, research director for collaboration and content strategies at Gartner Inc., said Slack and other vendors are racing to leverage AI in services promising to provide corporate clients with the ability to better handle that kind of data overload and cut through the noise to the information they really need.

“AI proficiency will be important but focusing on delivering these capabilities to improve productivity and collaboration will be the critical factor determining success,” Mr. Cannell said.

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