This content is part of the Conference Coverage: Everything Enterprise Connect 2024: News, trends and insights

Enterprise Connect 2024 brings AI reality check

The annual business communications conference highlights the trends that are expected to drive UC and CX buying decisions over the next few years.

Businesses today have a tight balancing act between providing workplace flexibility and encouraging employees to return to the office. IT leaders are exploring how to provide a high-quality collaboration experience for employees in the office as they work with remote colleagues. IT leaders are also looking beyond AI hype to better understand the business problems AI can solve in a secure and compliant manner.

At Enterprise Connect 2024, which takes place March 25-28 in Orlando, Fla., and virtually, conference attendees will explore the latest in unified communications (UC) and customer experience (CX) trends and gain insight into how AI realistically fits into their business communication strategies. Attendees can also dive into new conference tracks on data and analytics, employee experience and IT automation.

In this Q&A, Metrigy analyst Irwin Lazar discusses what IT leaders are looking for in AI technology, contact center integrations and return-to-office plans.

Editor's note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

What are some key topics to expect at Enterprise Connect 2024?

Irwin Lazar: AI, AI and AI. The battle now in the vendor community is who can out-AI each other. Companies are trying to create AI virtual assistants or copilots that can be used for everything from meeting summarization to querying data. That's where the initial version was: We can summarize transcripts and capture action items out of meetings. Now, it's: How do we give you insights into your data? How do you query what's happening in your chats, your email and your meeting transcripts to have almost like an improved search? I think that's where you see vendors are looking now.

Irwin LazarIrwin Lazar

The contact center side is using AI to improve customer insights. It's assisting agents better and more effectively answering customer inquiries based on real-time AI guidance, with an AI bot listening to a call saying, 'Hey, you should suggest this, or here's what the customer really wants.' Customer-facing self-service is another big area that we expect to see a lot of AI announcements.

Last year was the hype year for AI. This year's a little bit more of a reality check. When we're talking to our research customers, their biggest concern is if it's worth it. Do I want to pay $30 a month for Microsoft Copilot or $20 or $30 for Google versus a free version from some providers like Zoom? Are people seeing value out of it, and how are they benefiting from it?

There are still a lot of issues with hallucinations, where data that comes out of an AI bot is not entirely accurate, whether it's a meeting summary or action items. The reality check will be a big area.

I'm also doing a panel on the security side. AI generates a lot of content. What happens with that content? Who controls it? How is it classified? How is it secured? How do companies protect themselves from AI running amok?

How does this year's conference highlight the growing convergence of UC and CX?

Lazar: The macrotrend in the UC space is the dominance of Microsoft. Microsoft's gained a pretty strong foothold in the messaging and meeting spaces and is continuing to grow in the voice space. You've got a handful of companies competing directly with Microsoft, like Zoom, Cisco and RingCentral, and a lot of others who are trying to tie into the Microsoft ecosystem. What are the things they can do better than Microsoft? Contact center is a big one. No one really dominates the contact center market like how Microsoft is starting to do in the UC space.

You've got so many different vendors in that space, all trying to carve a niche out for themselves, whether it's cloud, hybrid or on premises. To also tie into Microsoft, I think, creates an area of interest and excitement.

The other thing that's interesting is the bifurcation of the contact center market. You've got lightweight contact center vendors coming into play. You've got contact center vendors, like Five9 and Genesys, who play in the complex contact center. But, then, you've got thousands of companies who are using, say, Microsoft Teams, and maybe they create a call queue with IVR [interactive voice response]. It gives them very minimal contact center functionality. But that's good enough, or maybe they just need some additional reporting.

Companies like Akixi and AudioCodes are trying to tap that space. I think that's interesting to watch it develop. 8x8 is trying to position themselves as the Microsoft partner for contact center, and they came out with a lightweight contact center a couple of weeks ago. I think that lightweight contact center piece is interesting.

What are IT leaders exploring now with hybrid work and return to office?

Lazar: There's been a lot of pressure over the last year to get people back in the office; the commercial real estate market is teetering. But, for companies trying to navigate those waters, they're trying to get people back in a certain percentage of time. They're trying to create an office environment that encourages people to come in and work more effectively in an office.

We see in our research growth in the use of hot desking to enable people to have an office location they can check out and check in and allow them to position themselves near their co-workers to have a high-quality environment with high-quality cameras, screens and speakers.

Then, having a meeting room that can be flexible so you can change the size and shape of it if needed, and it's easy for people to go in and start a meeting through one-touch join. They don't have to follow the cables and figure out how to cast their screen.

Also, taking advantage of AI so people in the meeting room are more visible to people attending remotely, whether it's AI center-room cameras or multicameras. When you're attending a meeting with people who are remote, it looks like they are talking to one another face to face. Achieving that equity of experience is a big focus area for the meeting and hardware vendors.

Then, adding collaboration capabilities into the room, like a touchscreen, so if you're sharing content or working on a whiteboard, you can have somebody working remotely annotate and contribute to that whiteboard.

A newer feature I've started to see is something Google is calling 'companion mode.' The idea is: If I'm in a meeting room, I can see everybody on the screen in the front of the room, but everybody joining remotely can be chatting with one another, taking a poll and have meeting capabilities I don't get if I'm sitting in the conference room unless I log into the meeting separately. And, if I log into the meeting, I've created a feedback loop where I have to turn my speakers off.

With Google's companion mode, I can log in, and it knows I'm in the meeting room. It only gives me access to things like chat and screen sharing, but it doesn't turn my microphone and camera on. It doesn't mess up the flow of the meeting. I expect you'll see other vendors implement that kind of functionality to improve the ability of someone in a meeting room to have the same features they would have if they were connecting from home.

Katherine Finnell is senior site editor for TechTarget's Unified Communications site. She writes and edits articles on a variety of business communications technology topics, including unified communications as a service, video conferencing and collaboration.

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