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I have to admit that when I saw the No Jitter post about Cisco acquiring a “relationship intelligence” company, my first thought was that the term “relationship intelligence” is one of those oxymorons like jumbo shrimp. At least in my experience.

Self-deprecating cheap laughs aside, there are several significant factors about Cisco’s purchase of Accompany. Not only does the deal give Cisco a technology to compete with LinkedIn (which of course was acquired by Microsoft), but the Cisco acquisition also was accompanied (so to speak) by a change in leadership at Cisco’s Collaboration Technology Group, which will now be led by Accompany’s founder and CEO, Amy Chang, as Rowan Trollope departs Cisco to become CEO of Five9. (See Zeus Kerravala’s No Jitter post for full details and expert analysis of the whole situation.)

Cisco will spend $270 million for Accompany, which isn’t chump change. That’s a little over twice what they paid for MindMeld, their other major acquisition that’s now driving much of the Cisco push into AI within collaboration. And the fact that Chang already had a seat on Cisco’s board (which she’ll leave to take the Collaboration Technology Group position) suggests that her startup’s particular focus—as well as Chang’s past experience with AI and analytics at Google and elsewhere—is an area that Cisco sees as critical to the future of collaboration.

“Relationship intelligence,” all kidding aside, has to do with using AI to understand the relationships between the individuals who are key to the business you’re doing. Accompany positions itself--at least as I interpret it—as a kind of more-granular (and thus presumably more accurate and useful) approach to business networking. The company’s website claims:

Comprehensive, at-a-glance org maps are layered with proprietary insights, allowing you to quickly pinpoint any company’s important relationships, competitive affiliations, rising stars, superconnectors and more.

“For example: Who are the superconnectors in this company who have shown a higher propensity toward external tooling and ideas.

I have no idea whether Accompany’s technology truly can give Cisco an effective answer to LinkedIn, but it’s clear that both companies are betting heavily on what Benedict Evans, a venture capitalist, described (in the wake of the Microsoft LinkedIn acquisition) as “the connective tissue for enterprises.”

This could be one of the real tests for AI in our marketplace. We’ve already seen that AI is a natural fit for the contact center, where the challenge is to match customers’ needs (at a specific moment) with agent skills, across multiple possible channels.

If the idea is that we can apply AI to B2B relationships as well as B2C, then LinkedIn and Accompany appear to be the way that these collaboration vendors intend to do it. Right now, when you want to do business with somebody for the first time or in a new context, you gather whatever information you can about them and their company via public sources, you ask around and try to leverage the human equivalent of that “connective tissue,” and you try to bring those insights to bear when you actually make contact. You can certainly imagine that automating this process has value, as long as you don’t introduce the creepy “how’d-you-know-that-about-me?” factor into the business relationship.

This suggests that another of this week’s No Jitter writers, Jim Burton, is right to point toward a future where your enterprise’s decision-making about communications and collaboration will be much more targeted and will require you to understand much more about how business gets done within your enterprise. Jim’s post focuses on the potential for vertically-focused integrated communications, but also points toward the importance of understanding the roles of your users within the enterprise.

Your predecessors in previous generations of communications and IT could afford to see their end users as phone numbers and feature sets. Ironically, as AI penetrates more deeply into communications and collaboration, you may have to get a more human understanding of your users.