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Can Cisco reinvent Webex to become the verb for hybrid working?

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 16, 2021
An exclusive interview with Cisco's Jeetu Patel about his mission to reinvent Webex as the platform of choice for truly inclusive hybrid working.

Webex transcript highlighting - screengrab from call
Phil talks to Jeetu Patel, Cisco (Screengrab from Webex call)

Last spring, as the world leapt into remote working at the onset of the pandemic, Zoom suddenly became a verb — the company's brand became a synonym for video meetings, just like googling means doing a web search, and every vacuum cleaner is a hoover. That must have hurt at Webex, the company that first commercialized web meetings in the late 1990s, and where Zoom's founders originally worked. But despite losing the moment to its upstart rival, Cisco-owned Webex doubled down on a plan to recapture its former pre-eminence.

With those investments now starting to bear fruit as the world emerges into the Vaccine Economy, Webex may have a new chance to become the vendor synonymous with the emerging hybrid mix of distributed and office-based work — a brave new world for which it has a specific vision. According to Jeetu Patel, who joined Cisco last August as SVP and GM of Security and Collaboration to lead the transformation at Webex:

I think there's little doubt that the future of work for most will be hybrid. Sometimes they'll choose to work in the office, sometimes they don't, sometimes somewhere in the middle. I think the technologies have actually today not been designed to accommodate for that mixed mode of working efficiently. In fact, I think hybrid work is going to be a harder cultural adjustment than [remote working] ...

The first step is, can we just make sure that people don't feel like second-class participants in the meeting? That everyone feels like they have an equal voice, that everyone feels like they have a seat at the table, no matter what the table is.

A mission to change the world

To those familiar with the digital teamwork landscape, the idea that Webex could come back to dominate this new territory of hybrid working may seem a stretch. The brand long ago ceded the mantle of product innovation to younger competitors, and while it has grown in the past year as customers have intensified their use of its platform, it is the likes of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace and Workplace from Facebook that have attracted attention over the past year both for customer adoption and product enhancements. All now recognize the enormous market opportunity that the emergence of hybrid working represents.

But Webex has been fighting back with renewed energy, albeit largely out of the limelight so far. There are two factors that suggest its efforts shouldn't be discounted. First of all, that mission to ensure that everyone can participate fully in hybrid working — whether they're in a conference room at headquarters or joining over a web link from home or a shared working hub — happens to align directly with its parent Cisco's corporate mission "to power an inclusive future for all." This means Webex's new-found vigor has the full weight of Cisco behind it, as the networking giant's CEO Chuck Robbins told Patel last week as part of a virtual event to launch the new Webex brand and features, saying:

Technology connects people at the most basic level, and provides them opportunity to participate in the global economy ... The thinking that you're doing right now around leveraging the platform to actually further inclusion is very powerful.

Patel believes the rise of hybrid working has far more potential than simply finding a new balance between the office and elsewhere. Newly emerging digital capabilities that make it possible to connect people — irrespective of location, language or circumstances — could have a profound leveling-up effect, opening up economic opportunity and inclusion to formerly remote or otherwise disadvantaged groups. He says:

Imagine if, over time, we took out the barriers of geography and language, and personality type and socio-economic level, and on and on and on. Imagine what it does, for people around the world being able to participate in a global economy — and also for companies being able to go out and source talent.

Innovation at Webex

This vision is backed up the considerable resources that Cisco, which acquired Webex for $3.2 billion back in 2007, has prioritized for the business unit in the past year or so, funding new organic product development as well as acquisitions. That's a turnaround from prior years, as Patel admits, but the effort has now gone into overdrive, with Webex claiming a tally of 800 new features introduced in the past year. He says:

A couple years ago, if there were skeptics, they had good reason to be. We had, to some degree, lost our innovative gene for a while and we had gotten to be a little bit more complacent. That's no longer the case.

In fact, not only have we started innovating, I don't think there's anyone innovating faster right now. We've added 800 features, and made four acquisitions, and integrated those acquisitions in record time. I've only been here for 10 months. I'll tell you this. In my professional career, I have never seen the speed of innovation, like I've seen in the past 10 months routinely.

Patel points to advanced features that have rolled out in the past year to improve the Webex experience, including AI-powered background noise removal, visual recognition of someone physically raising their hand to automatically toggle on the 'raised hand' status, or the ability for users to quickly rearrange the video layout to focus on participants of special interest — for example, someone presenting to the sales team might want to keep a close eye on the reactions of the head of sales. These are proof points that Webex is aiming to solve for problems that others are not even thinking about yet, he argues:

These are not catch-up features. In fact, most of our competitors have not caught up yet ...

The culture that we have created at this point is not around catch-up. It's around asymmetry. And what I mean by asymmetry is, you come at the problem from an entirely different and innovative and original angle than what the others have come with.

Patel says there will be no let-up in the pace of innovation, whether organically or by acquisition, in pursuit of the ultimate goal. He elaborates:

We will build at a breakneck pace ourselves, and we will acquire when it makes sense. When we acquire, we will make sure that it gets integrated really fast — that'll be one of the criteria that we look at. So in 30 to 45 days from some of these transactions closing, you're starting to see those capabilities get incorporated into the platform.

We have a very targeted end state that we're trying to get toward, which is how do we make hybrid work 10x better? And how do we make hybrid work a reality for the world? Because the world's a better place when work is hybrid.

Absorbing acquisitions at speed

Last year's acquisition of BabbleLabs, which brought AI-powered noise removal technology into Webex, is a case in point, bringing a capability to every Webex user that previously required expensive end-user hardware. He says:

In the first 30 days from the time that we purchased the company, noise removal was added so that hundreds of millions of people could use it right away ...

So if you are a person that does not have the [means] financially to be able to have a separate, dedicated office in your work — you're living with a bunch of roommates, and some of them are vacuuming the place, and there's a dog barking and there's a kid crying — that those things don't come in the way of you being able to come across as professional.

The acquisition of audience engagement app Slido last month is another example that furthers the goal of making the hybrid work experience more inclusive. Patel explains:

A core tenet of inclusivity, is everyone should feel heard, even when they're not speaking. And so how do you create a conversation in that format when there's 100,000 people, or 50 people or 100 people in a room? Well, it seemed like [Slido co-founder and CEO] Peter [Komornik] had done some deep thinking in that area, and our values were very aligned. And when we recently sat down and started talking about it, it seemed like it made a lot of sense to acquire them.

Using Slido, Patel now starts his 14,000-strong all-hands meetings with an icebreaker question, where attendees put a word in Slido to express how they're feeling, and Slido then creates a dynamic word cloud of what everyone has put in. It dramatically cahnges the dynamic of the meeting. Patel says:

In the first 30 seconds, when I'm going to talk to 14,000 people, I have a signal of the sentiment of those 14,000 people before I start talking. I can be mindful of that sentiment, and adjust what I'm saying, to be empathetic to what they're feeling. That, I think, is just an unbelievably amazing thing to be able to do.

Making hybrid working more inclusive

It's this kind of capability that informs Patel's insistence that digitally connected collaboration is here to stay — and can deliver a vastly better experience (hence the "10x") — even when people are able to once again come together in person. In his view, hybrid working is greater than the sum of its parts because it gives so many more people the freedom to participate in a way that accommodates their individual circumstances. He explains:

This is not a compromise stopgap until everyone says, 'I'm going to get back into the office.' This is a way of operating that is in fact better than either of the past two ways. And we have to make hybrid work 10x better than either all being in the office or all being remote ...

If you maintain your wellbeing, you will be more productive — because people will feel more included, because you'll be able to access talent from anywhere, because you'll be able to make sure that you give people the flexibility. So that, you know, a working mom, who has to pick up her child from daycare at three in the afternoon, is still able to have a career and doesn't feel like she's leaving in the middle of the day, because that is just her day, and she's just going to operate that way, and it's unapologetically going to operate that way.

That I think is a societal norm that we all talk about, but I don't think we've created that structure yet. And what this allows us to do, is do a reset.

Putting the technology in place to enable this new world of hybrid working is the first step, but it also demands a big cultural change from organizations. Patel says Cisco is ready to help enterprises make the shift:

It's a far greater cultural challenge than it is a technological one. Yes, there's some technology that needs to get enhanced. But I think culturally, there's a lot that needs to get done ...

We will have to handhold customers, we will have to work with them, we'll have to listen to customers, we will have to make sure that we get coaching from them on what kind of technology they need, we will have to share best practices on things that we have done that have worked as we move forward.

The combination of those things will hopefully get us to a place where where there is no remote. The beauty about hybrid is, hybrid has no remote. No one feels like they're remote. Everyone feels like they're working from wherever they choose to work from, and the team is operating in sync.

Chipping away at the user experience

The challenge of working towards that goal while re-establishing Webex's reputation as a trend-setter is a big ask, but Patel believes that if Webex continues to plug away at improving the user experience and adding further enhancements, it will eventually win attention for its platform. He explains:

When you do that, relentlessly and consistently, by keeping your head down and just chipping away for a while, it starts to compound — and when things compound, people notice. It's just hard to ignore at some point in time, when you have really cool capabilities that you keep releasing. and people are like, 'Oh, wow, that is cool' ...

Building a product that people love, that they talk to their friends and family about, that is the most scalable viral engine that you could create.

There's still much to do, but already Webex is offering simultaneous transcription and translation in multiple languages. The ultimate aim is to harness the technology to break down all the barriers to communication and collaboration that held people back in the pre-hybrid world. Patel sums up:

The ultimate fantasy is to make sure that multiple people in a meeting, speaking multiple languages, can just communicate — where geography is no longer a barrier, language is no longer a barrier, and anyone from any part of the world can just participate in the global economy.

My take

There's no doubt that Webex has had a huge makeover. Compared to when I last spoke to Patel in a Webex call a year ago, I found the user experience massively improved. I was able to install the desktop app with no problems and found it easy to adjust my settings on the fly — a big contrast to the difficulties I had a day later joining a Microsoft Teams call, which I ended up having to abandon. On the Webex call, the ease of showing simultaneous transcription and the ability to highlight sections on the fly — as pictured at the top of this story — is a capability I'd love to see as the default in all the interview calls I do. Natively building in noise suppression — which I can only achieve on other platforms because I invested an extra $1000 to buy an upmarket PC with an advanced Nvidia video card — is also very powerful. There's a lot of thoughtful work going into improving the product experience.

I think Patel is right too to seize on the switch to hybrid working as a trend that plays well to Cisco's values and Webex's direction. The message about enabling inclusion and raising the economic potential of disadvantaged groups is one that diginomica heartily endorses, and gives a social dimension to the technology that none of the other leading players are talking about, with the exception of Zoho. There's much to like here.

All the same, it would be a hugely unexpected turnaround for Webex to suddenly seize the initiative in the digital teamwork market after languishing for so long as an also-ran. It would not be the first time Cisco — or indeed Webex even before it became part of Cisco — has had big ambitions fueled by engineering prowess. Will it be different this time? No one can know for sure, but if at least Webex and Cisco can help to establish a consensus that the Vaccine Economy era of hybrid working should spread economic opportunity and foster inclusion across the global workforce, that in itself will be an achievement to be proud of.

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