Last week Microsoft announced the acquisition of Nuance for an estimated USD 19.7 billion. This is Microsoft’s second largest acquisition ever, after they acquired LinkedIn in 2016. Nuance is an established name in the Healthcare industry and is said to have a presence in 10,000 healthcare organisations globally. Apart from Healthcare, Nuance has strong capabilities in Conversational AI and speech solutions to support other industries. This acquisition is in line with Microsoft’s go-to-market roadmap and strategies.
Microsoft’s Healthcare Focus
Microsoft announced their Healthcare Cloud last year and this acquisition will bolster their Healthcare offerings and market presence. Nuance’s product portfolio includes clinical speech recognition SaaS offerings – Dragon Ambient eXperience, Dragon Medical One and PowerScribe One for radiology reporting – on Microsoft Azure. The acquisition builds on already existing integrations and partnerships that were in place over the years.
“Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare offers its solution capabilities to healthcare providers using a ‘modular’ approach. Given how diverse healthcare providers are in their technology maturity and appetite for change, the more diverse the ‘modules’, the greater the opportunities for Microsoft. This partnership with Nuance also brings to the table established relationships with EHR vendors, which will be useful for Microsoft globally.
The Healthcare industry continues to struggle as the world negotiates the challenges of mass vaccination. But on the upside, the ongoing Healthcare crisis has given remote care a much-needed shot in the arm. Clinicians today will be more open to documentation and transcription services for process automation and compliance. The acquisition of Nuance’s Healthcare capabilities will definitely boost Microsoft’s market presence in provider organisations.
However, Healthcare is not the only industry that Microsoft and Nuance are focused on. The Microsoft Cloud for Retail that was launched earlier this year aims to offer integrated and intelligent capabilities to retailers and brands to improve their end-to-end customer journey. Nuance has omnichannel customer engagement solutions that can be leveraged in Retail and other industries. As Microsoft continues to verticalise their offerings, they will consider more acquisitions that will complement their value proposition.“
Microsoft’s Focus on Conversational AI
Microsoft already has several speech recognition offerings, speech to text services, and chatbots; and they continue to invest in the Conversational AI space. They have created an open-source template for creating virtual assistants to help Bot Framework developers. In February, Microsoft announced their industry specific cloud offerings for Financial services, Manufacturing, and Non-Profit, and also introduced a series of AI and natural language features in Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Office Lens and Microsoft Office mobile to deliver interactive, voice forward assistive experiences.
“There is no slowing down in this space and the acquisition clearly demonstrates the vision that Microsoft is building with Nuance – a vendor that has made speech recognition, text to speech, conversational AI the foundation of the company. This is a brilliant move by Microsoft in the Conversational AI space and a win-win for both companies.
This move could also mark further inroads for Microsoft into the contact centre space. With Teams now being integrated into contact centre technologies, working with large customers using speech and conversational AI, Dynamics 365 could herald the start of more acquisitions for Microsoft to bolster a wider customer engagement vision.
The Conversational AI war is heating up and various other cloud vendors such as Google and AWS are starting to get aggressive and have made investments in recent years to enhance their Conversational AIcapabilities. Google Dialogflow has been seeing rapid uptake and they now have deep partnerships with Genesys, Avaya, Cisco and other contact centre players. Microsoft coming into the game and acquiring a company with years of history and IP in the speech space, demonstrates how the cloud battle and the war between Google, Microsoft and AWS is heating up in the Conversational AI. All of a sudden you have Microsoft as a powerhouse in this game.”
Last week AT&T announced a partnership with Fortinet to expand their managed security services portfolio. This partnership provides global managed Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solutions at scale. The solution uses Fortinet’s SASE stack which unifies software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) and network security capabilities into AT&T managed cybersecurity framework. Additionally, AT&T SASE and Fortinet will integrate with AT&T Alien Labs Threat Intelligence platform, a threat intelligence unit to enhance detection and response. AT&T has plans to update its managed SASE service during the year and will continue to bring more options.
Talking about the AT&T-Fortinet partnership, Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Ashok Kumar says, “This move continues the trend of the convergence of networking and security solutions. AT&T is positioning themselves well with their integrated offer of network and security services to address the needs of global enterprises.”
Convergence of Network & Security
AT&T’s improved global managed security service includes features such as secure web gateway, firewall-as-a service, cloud access security broker (CASB) and zero-trust access, which provides security teams and analysts with unified capabilities across the cloud, networks and endpoints. The solution aims to enable enterprises to create a more resilient network bringing the core capabilities of the two companies that will reduce operational costs and deliver a unified offering.
Last year AT&T also partnered with Cisco to expand its SD-WAN solution and to support AT&T Managed Services using Cisco’s vManage controller through a single management interface. Over the past years multiple vendors including Fortinet have developed comprehensive SASE solution capabilities through partnerships or acquisitions to provide a unified offering. Last year Fortinet acquired Opaq, a SASE cloud provider to bolster their security capabilities through OPAQ’s patented Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) cloud solution and to strengthen SD-WAN, security and edge package.
The Push Towards Flexible Networking
Kumar says, “The pandemic has created a higher demand and value for secure networking services. Enterprises experienced greater number of phishing and malware attacks last year with the sudden increase in work-from-home users. The big question enterprises need to ask themselves is whether legacy networks can support their evolving business priorities.”
“As global economies look to recover, securing remote users working from anywhere, with full mobility, will be a high priority for all enterprises. Enterprises need to evaluate mobile SASE services that provide frictionless identity management with seamless user experiences, and be compatible with the growing adoption of 5G services in 2021 and beyond.”
The Top 5 Telecommunications & Mobility Trends that will dominate the telecom industry to watch out for in 2021. Signup for Free to download the report.
This announcement comes on the back of several wins for BetterUp. To boost employee performance and organisational growth NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) partnered with BetterUp to support new ways of coaching and preparing a workforce for change. The world’s largest brewer, AB InBev has partnered with BetterUp to strengthen diversity and inclusion through BetterUp’s coaching platform.
The Need to Improve Employee Experience
The pandemic changed the working arrangement of millions of employees and industries across the globe who are now working remotely or in a hybrid environment.
Ecosystm Principal Advisor, Audrey William says, “Driving better employee experience (EX) should take centre stage this year with enterprises putting employees at the centre of all initiatives. We will see EX platforms get integrated further and deeper into workplace collaboration and HR applications. In the last 12 months, we have seen apps monitoring wellness and sleep, training and coaching, meditation, employee motivation, and so on sit within larger collaboration platforms such as Slack, Zoom, Microsoft, Cisco and others.”
While the primary focus has been on optimising the work environment, it is time for organisations to start focusing on employee well-being. Ecosystm research shows that organisations implemented several measures to empower a remote workforce last year when the pandemic hit. But there was not enough focus on employee well-being (Figure 1).
William says, “A hybrid work environment may have negative impact on your employees. You may face issues such as longer working hours, employee burnout, lesser social engagements and connection, loneliness – and mental and emotional issues and depression”.
“Organisations that place an emphasis on the employees will see their revenues grow and also see less attrition. The more you invest in your people, the more you will get back in return. It is as simple as that! You can see that now in some organisations where employees are being given more flexibility, employers are not dictating how they should work, diversity and inclusion efforts have become mainstream, and efforts are being made to make employees feel like they belong.”
William adds, “However, Ecosystm research finds that organisations have gone back to putting customers and business growth first – losing focus on their employees. Only 27% of organisations globally say that they have improving employee experience as a key business priority in 2021. It is time for this culture and mindset to change. And solutions such as BetterUp can make a difference.”
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Human-centricity Will be Front and Centre of Organisational Priorities
2020 saw immense humanitarian disruption. Enabling remote work was a key component of business continuity. Both organisations and their employees have a better understanding now of the implications of remote working and how it can be made to work. They are also aware of the challenges of remote working. Monitoring productivity, maintaining the right work-life balance and ensuring employee emotional well-being have been challenging. Despite the challenges, hybrid/blended working is definitely here to stay. Employees will expect more options on the location of their work, often choosing to work where they are most productive.
All decisions related to the organisation, filtered through the lens of human-centricity, will drive better employee engagement – and engaged employees provide better customer experience. Organisations that will operationalise this at scale and across cultures will emerge as success stories.
Technology Will Bond with Facilities and Operations – Connecting with HR Will be a Challenge
There has to be an alignment between the Business, People, Work Environment and Technology to make an organisation truly empowered to handle sudden pivots that will be required in 2021 as well (Figure 1).
This will require cross-departmental coordination and synergy. Tech teams have traditionally driven the Digital Workplace strategy; now they will have to work closely with Operations and Facilities Management teams on “Smart and Safe Office” strategies. That may not be the real challenge given that there are overlaps between these three teams – they have a shared language and similar KPIs. The real challenge will be the need for Tech teams and HR to work more closely to improve the overall employee experience, including a focus on employee productivity and wellness. Human-centricity makes the role of HR even more important – IT will find it challenging to find common grounds as there have traditionally been few shared KPIs between these two departments.
Office Spaces Will Become Truly Digital
The hybrid/blended workplace model means that the physical workplace is not disappearing soon. Even as the model evolves for each organisation, what becomes clear is that employee expectations have changed drastically in the last year, and the traditional employee experience expectations of Salary, Recognition, and Job Satisfaction may not be enough. Employees will now expect flexibility, social cohesion, and effective communication. If they are to return to the physical office, they will expect the same benefits as working from home.
This will drive the adoption of digital tech to ensure the office space is safer, more effective and a productive environment for the employees and the business. Two key areas of focus will be on seamless access to information and employee control over work environment.
Providers Will Deepen Digital Workplace Offerings, but the Market Will Not Consolidate
Key tech providers in the digital workspace space (such as Microsoft, Google, Zoom, Cisco, AWS and so on) will broaden their capabilities and make it easier to procure and use solutions. It will no longer be a “tool-centric” approach (chat, video, document sharing, online meetings, whiteboards and so on) – it will become a platform play. Information workers will be able to choose the approach that best fits the problem they are trying to resolve, without being limited by the capabilities of the tool. E.g. documents will be sharable and editable within chats; whiteboards will be integrated into all other communication services and so on.
Tech providers will deepen and strengthen their capabilities organically and acquisitions will mostly be about buying market share, customers and not the technology.
Industry-centric Digital Workplace Services Will Emerge and Witness Rapid Growth
The Services industry has been leading in the adoption of digital workplaces – but blue-collar roles and front-line employees will also start benefiting from these technologies. In 2021, new digital workplace capabilities will extend beyond the employee base to systems that drive better connectivity and communication with customers. This will open the market up for smaller, niche players (and this may well run counter to the previous trend). Tech teams will focus on employees and a platform-based approach to collaboration, while Customer teams and others will implement tools and platforms to better communicate outside of the business. The next few years will bring the traditional “employee-centric” collaboration players into direct competition with the “customer-centric” ones. Those that play across both today (such as Google) will be better positioned to win the enterprise-wide “Future of Work” style deals.
In Australia, Atlassian has made work from home a permanent option for their employees. They will continue to operate their physical offices but have given employees the option to choose where they want to work from.
Some organisations have gone beyond announcing these measures. Slack has talked about how they are evolving their corporate culture. For example, they have evolved their hiring policies and most new roles are open to remote candidates. Going forward, they are evaluating a more asynchronous work environment where employees can work the hours that make sense for them. In their communique, they are open about the fluid nature of the work environment and the challenges that employees and organisations might face as their shift their work models.
Organisations will have to evaluate multiple factors before coming up with the right model that suits their corporate culture and nature of work, but it appears that tech companies are showing the industry how it can be done.
#2 Tech companies evolve their capabilities to enable the Future of Work
Right from the start of the crisis, we have seen organisations make technology-led pivots. Technology providers are responding – and fast – to the changing environment and are evolving their capabilities to help their customers embrace the digital Future of Work.
Many of these responses have included strengthening their ecosystems and collaborating with other technology providers. Wipro and Intel announced a collaboration between Wipro’s LIVE Workspace digital workspace solution and the Intel vPro platform to enable remote IT support and solution. The solution provides enhanced protection and security against firmware-level attacks. Slack and Atlassian strengthened their alliance with app integrations and an account ‘passport’ in a joint go-to-market move, to reduce the time spent logging into separate services and products. This will enable both vendors to focus on their strengths in remote working tools and provide seamless services to their customers.
Tech companies have also announced product enhancements and new capabilities. CBTS has evolved their cloud-based unified communications, collaboration and networking solutions, with an AI-powered Secure Remote Collaboration solution, powered by Cisco Webex. With seamless integration of Cisco Webex software, Cisco Security software, and endpoints that combine high-definition cameras, microphones, and speakers, with automatic noise reduction, the solution now offers features such real-time transcription, closed captioning, and recording for post-meeting transcripts.
Communication and Collaboration tools have been in the limelight since the start of the crisis with providers such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack introducing new features throughout. In August Microsoft enhanced the capabilities of Teams and introduced a range of new features to the Teams Business Communications System. It now offers the option to host calls of up to 20,000 participants with a limit to 1,000 for interactive meetings, after which the call automatically shifts to a “view only” mode. With the possibility of remote working becoming a reality even after the crisis is over, Microsoft is looking to make Teams relevant for a range of meeting needs – from one-on-one meetings up to large events and conferences. In the near future, the solution will also allow organisations to add corporate branding, starting with branded meeting lobbies, followed by branded meeting experiences.
While many of these solutions are aimed at large enterprises, tech providers are also aware that they are now receiving a lot of business from small and medium enterprises (SMEs), struggling to make changes to their technology environment with limited resources. Juniper has expanded their WiFi 6 access points to include 4 new access points aimed at outdoor environments, SMEs, retail sites, K-12 schools, medical clinics and even the individual remote worker. While WiFi 6 is designed for high-density public or private environments, it is also designed for IoT deployments and in workplaces that use videoconferencing and other applications that require high bandwidth.
#3 The Future of Work is driving up hardware sales
Ecosystm research shows that at the start of the crisis, 76% of organisations increased investments in hardware – including PCs, devices, headsets, and conferencing units – and 67% of organisations expect their hardware spending to go up in 2020-21. Remote working remains a reality across enterprises. Despite the huge increase in demand, it became difficult for hardware providers to fulfil orders initially, with a disrupted supply chain, store closures and a rapid shift to eCommerce channels. This quarter has seen a steady rise in hardware sales, as providers overcome some of their initial challenges.
Apart from enterprise sales, there has been a surge in the consumer demand for PCs and devices. While remote working is a key contributor, online education and entertainment are mostly prompting homebound people to invest more in hardware. Even accessories such as joysticks are in short supply – a trend that seems to have been accelerated by the Microsoft Flight Simulator launch earlier this month.
The demand for prime real estate has been hit by remote working and organisations not renewing leases or downsizing – both because most employees are working remotely and because of operational cost optimisation during the crisis. This is going to have a longer-term impact on the market, as organisations re-evaluate their need for physical office space. Some organisations will reduce office space, and many will re-design their offices to cater to virtual interactions (Figure 1). While now, Ecosystm research shows that only 16% of enterprises are expecting a reduction of commercial space, this might well change over the months to come. Organisations might even feel the need to have multiple offices in suburbs to make it convenient for their hybrid workers to commute to work on the days they have to. Amazon is offering employees additional choices for smaller offices outside the city of Seattle.
But the Future of Work and the rise of a distributed workforce is beginning to show an initial impact on the real estate industry. Last week saw Pinterest cancel a large office lease at a building to be constructed near its headquarters in San Francisco. The company felt that it might not be the right time to go ahead with the deal, as they are re-evaluating where employees would like to work from in the future. Even the termination fees of USD 89.5 million did not discourage them. They will continue to maintain their existing work premises but do not see feel that it is the right time to make additional real estate investments, as they re-evaluate where employees would like to work from in the future.
There is a need for organisations to prepare themselves for the Future of Work – now! Ecosystm has launched a new 360o Future of Work practice, leveraging real-time market data from our platform combined with insights from our industry practitioners and experienced analysts, to guide organisations as they shift and define their new workplace strategies.
Ecosystm Principal Advisors; Tim Sheedy (Technology), Ravi Bhogaraju (People & Organisations), and Mike Zamora (Infrastructure & Offices) provided holistic view of what the Future of Work will look like.
The move comes as many businesses and governments are witnessing a spike in inbound contact centre volumes since the outbreak of the pandemic. The telecom company aims to help the contact centre industry through its on-demand contact centre suite of solutions that can be scaled up or down according to the organisations’ requirements. It can be combined with existing CRM platforms in a single dashboard for better access to data and resolution support.
Vodafone Connect is built on the AWS Connect cloud contact centre solution and uses data analytics and machine learning tools to automate customer interactions across multiple channels – email, messaging and social media – to support the contact centre agents with real-time information.
COVID-19 has accelerated the move to the cloud
The recent pandemic has seen many organisations make a leap almost overnight to cloud contact centre technologies. Many organisations that previously had concerns around data privacy, and securing customer data – and were thus hesitant about deploying cloud contact centre solutions – have moved to the cloud model. The cloud model helped get agents that were forced to work from home up and running in a short duration. The immediate urgency was primarily due to a massive spike in voice calls and non-voice activity such as emails. During the COVID-19 crisis, many organisations used Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections to their legacy on-premises phone system to enable the remote agents. However, there have been challenges reported by many organisations with that approach such as increases to IT budget, difficulty in scaling easily, and the requirement for more IT support that could have been avoided.
Ecosystm research finds that only 30% of organisations have fully migrated their cloud contact centre solutions on the cloud.
This indicates a market opportunity for vendors in the cloud contact centre space. The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely triggered a strong move towards the cloud model. It has become imperative for vendors and solutions providers to strengthen their cloud capabilities.
Driving an Omni-Channel Experience has become increasingly difficult
Ecosystm research also finds that organisations find siloed organisational data as one of the biggest challenges in driving consistent customer experience.
This has been further exacerbated by the high volume of interactions that organisations have been having with their customers, and the need to accommodate work-from-home policies for their customer care agents. At the same time, nearly 60% of organisations want to drive an omni-channel experience to improve CX. This provides a huge opportunity for contact centre vendors and partners to offer consulting services to help organisations bridge the gaps in achieving an omni-channel experience. For many organisations there has been a greater push to integrate CRM, the voice of the customer/surveys, customer journey analytics to the contact centre technologies and this is not an easy task as it involves different stakeholders with different sets of KPIs. Having a single platform that can manage this omni-channel experience will be a huge benefit for many organisations.
New Players in the Competitive Landscape
AWS is a relatively new player in the contact centre market, but it is starting to disrupt the existing players, with a global installed base. However, it is worth noting that Avaya, Cisco and Genesys have a higher installed base and they continue to win new deals. The move to the cloud is witnessing more service providers, telecom providers and other contact centre partners push more cloud-based solutions in the market. Apart from AWS, other important players include NICEinContact, 8×8, Talkdesk, Twillio, Five9, and UJet. The competitive battleground is heating up and there are a lot of options for customers to choose from. It will all come down to working with a vendor that can help them achieve their desired CX outcomes.
There are other important elements in CX that are growing in importance and these include conversational AI, voice biometrics, knowledge management systems, machine learning and CX management solutions. Contact centre solution providers are having discussions around these areas with tech buyers. This will mean that we can expect deeper partnerships and acquisitions in the short to medium term. Security has also emerged as an important issue to be resolved, especially with agents working from home. This is from a compliance perspective and pertaining to how agents are viewing and handling customer data. These new trends indicate that customers will need to work with different vendors to solve the variety of issues they are facing.
The Vodafone Connect solution on AWS Connect is one of the many examples of how more partners of contact centre solutions are gearing up for the rapid move to the cloud. Globally, Vodafone also sells contact centre solutions from Cisco and Genesys. The next 3 years will see a great movement in the market and this will include vendors from North America that will set up operations to push their offerings across Europe and the Asia Pacific.
Click below to access insights from the Ecosystm Contact Centre Study on visibility into organisations’ priorities when running a Contact Centre (both in-house and outsourced models) and the technologies implemented and being evaluated