IBM, Cisco and Box CEOs reflect on future of work at BoxWorks 2020

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright September 18, 2020
Interviews with CEOs of enterprise IT stalwarts IBM and Cisco bookended the keynote at BoxWorks - has Box gone establishment?

Aaron Levie and Chuck Robbins at BoxWorks 2020
(Screengrab from event)

Content collaboration vendor Box added several new features to its cloud-native products to coincide with its BoxWorks Digital annual conference yesterday. The product keynote was bookended by videoconferenced 'fireside chats' with the CEOs of tech establishment giants IBM and Cisco, who reflected on the rise of digital teamwork and its impact in recent months. In conversation with Box CEO Aaron Levie, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins identified one of the biggest impacts:

My peers, your peers — lots of executives and people who didn't understand the power of this technology that we're using today — now realize the power of the technology. I think that's a big trigger that is going to change the future of work, as we'll talk about, the future of travel, the future of business meetings.

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna had a similar perspective:

I think that what this pandemic, followed by the isolation and all of the sheltering in place, has done is that everybody now wants to be a digital company, fast. So we have probably taken between five to ten years of transformation, and you're compressing it down to one to two years. That's a massive acceleration of digital and is driven by the technologies that we all love to talk about, and the two critical ones ... one's cloud and one's AI.

Both cited the sudden rise of telemedecine as an example of an industry that has rapidly switched from spurning remote work to embracing it, enforced by the need to avoid the risk of COVID-19 infection. Robbins also pointed to education as similarly impacted and went on to talk about the potential upside of delivering these services remotely:

Once you have that, then I can deliver education in the rural parts of this country, in rural parts of other countries where it didn't exist before. If you think about leveraging 5G infrastructure, grow broadband build-outs, and then follow on with education, follow up with health care and then follow on with ... the inclusive capabilities that you can deliver with this technology, we can actually go make an impact in areas of the world.

Remote work and integration

The CEOs spoke about the experience of rapidly adopting remote working in their own organizations. By mid-March, 95% of IBM's 350,000 global employees were working effectively from home or remotely, said Krishna, using tools such as Box, messaging app Slack and visual collaboration app Mural. Robbins reflected on how different it might have been if such tools had not been available:

If this had happened 10 or 15 years ago, just think about what the condition of the world right now would be, it would have been a train wreck.

The need to integrate work across several different vendor's tools was a shared theme. Robbins said he believes there's a new willingness among tech leaders to work together, in contrast to previous generations who took a more competitive stance. His take:

All of this technology needs to come together, we need to really think through how do we unleash the cognitive capabilities of our people through these tools.

The BoxWorks product announcements brought a number of enhancements to various offerings — including tighter integration with Microsoft Teams and a redesigned App Gallery of third-party apps — but there were no major new launches.

  • The ability to add annotations to file previews in Box, introduced earlier this year for the web application, is being extended to mobile, and also gaining support for Apple Pencil on iPad.
  • Templates for the Box Relay workflow automation tool, first announced in June as a pre-built library, will next month become available for customers to custom build their own.
  • In December, Box Relay will also gain API extensibility to connect workflows into third-party applications such as Salesforce and ServiceNow, and their own customer applications.
  • Box integration to Microsoft Teams gets an upgrade, enabling automatic sync of a Box folder to a Teams chat, the ability to instantly grant access to Box files from within Teams, and receive automatic notifications within Teams of content activity in Box.
  • The Box Shield security tool next year will get a new policy exception capability, whereby employees can post a business case requesting an exception, which is then recorded for audit purposes and must get explicit opt-in.
  • Box Governance will add FedRamp High certification and expand its GxP validation offering for both federal and life sciences customers.

My take

There was a time when the BoxWorks agenda set out to challenge convention. I miss those times. This year, BoxWorks was the epitome of convention, headlined by two mainstays of the IT establishment, and all delivered in the kind of webinar-style virtual event format that stifles energy and interaction. There was a more lively discussion later in the day with the CEOs of Slack, Zoom and Okta, and Aaron Levie's impish personality still shines through, even out of a video conference recording. But overall it felt as though Box is pursuing an establishment look these days.

Looking through the breakout sessions, that shouldn't be a surprise. Box is getting most traction in industries that value security and compliance — financial services, life sciences and public sector. Its positioning emphasizes conventional enterprise values of governance, security and auditability. Buyers in these industries want a vendor they can rely on, not one that's going to rock the boat. There's plenty enough boat-rocking going on in 2020 anyhow, which drives customers to Box along with other digital teamwork vendors without needing to do more to encourage them.

One way of looking at this is to recognize that the disruption to existing patterns of work foreshadowed at BoxWorks in earlier years has now become a reality. BoxWorks 2020 looks and sounds like the establishment because what was once fringe is now mainstream. But as much as it's still important to continue rooting out analog ways of working as Levie outlined in his own keynote, there is still more to do to improve the effectiveness of digital teamwork. In my view, it will be good to see more of that on the agenda at next year's BoxWorks.