Envisioning Envision: Microsoft is once again at a crossroads...maybe

Microsoft's first Envision, a rough-edged yet solid conference, was defined by its lack of definition. However, the company did drop hints about their plans and Paul Greenberg takes a crack at figuring it all out.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Satya Nadella: Looking at conversations as platforms.

Different. That's probably the best way to, umm, envision Envision; and -- to be fair -- do it with a clear lens. To set the stage, I'm going to tell you something that I rarely say. I'm not entirely sure what I think about this conference, as a conference "reviewer" and I'm not entirely sure as an analyst what I think about Microsoft's thinking. This is not a position I'm normally in. But when this is done, you'll understand why I say that.

I'll fill you in on both.

First Envision, the Conference

There is some history here. For many years, Microsoft had Convergence, their annual business apps conference. The crowd was typically 10,000-13,000 attendees - which was the product of both business-side and IT people from companies of interest who would attend. The messaging, framework and interaction was very much focused on business technology - software solutions really. This was a Microsoft business apps-focused discourse over two days or so that placed Dynamics as a building squarely in the landscape of 21st century business evolution. This led to an intermingling of the business and the tech solutions which were separate tracks at the same conferences - with both audiences "converging" - duh.

But for reasons that were very unclear -- and are still a little unclear, but more understandable post-Envision -- they decided to break out the two different groups and hold two conferences for those with a broader brush to paint with. Thus, Envision, which was/is seen as a business conference - one that goes broader than just Microsoft Dynamics products, and later in the year, Ignite which is for the IT guys who want to know how to use Microsoft products better.

On the surface of it, it seems logical. Strong business and strong IT - two different crowds. But there were fits and starts. Things were a bit vague and nerves were a bit high. But they pulled it off successfully, though it needs another year of seasoning to get it right and work out the kinks. It's hard to do an event that has a different (and new for the company doing it) concept behind it.

Well, rather than pontificate on this (and in this post, there is admittedly some pontification and some speculation), let's get to what you all were waiting for:

The Microsoft Envision 2016 Watchlist Conference Scorecard!

Category Grade Notes
Keynotes (Content) B Arguably, the content presented by Satya Nadella who is a very good, -down-to- earth speaker - the kind who an audience will listen to - was the most important content of the last several years when it came to outlining Microsoft's direction. It was very similar if not identical to the speech at Build the week before, and worth reiteration. But the vision, mission and program going forward was buried as subtexts rather than sussed to the front of the discussion and this left far too much of the audience guessing or intuiting what Microsoft was trying to say. But even with the overly subtle keynote, what was there was substantial and important.
Keynotes (Presentation) C+ The presentation ambiance was low-key. Tasteful, minimalist, but low key to the point of almost totally quiet. No theatrics, which is good; but nothing theatrical, which isn't. All of that is forgivable, but the biggest difficulty was the constant hand-off to customers and demos etc. to the point that Satya Nadella's presentation and its cadence were at best obfuscated and at worst lost to continuous planned interruption. I am big on the idea of demos and customer discussions but not to the level they diminish the message - which in this case was very important directionally for Microsoft. A few fewer demos/customer conversations -- or some of these positioned at a different point --would have worked better. On the very positive side, one thing they did that I've never seen anywhere else is that as the various conversations, presentations and videos were going on, they used closed captions for the deaf on the broadcast displays - something that all other vendors should emulate at their conferences.
Tracks/General Sessions A- These were generally very well received. The presentations were appropriate to the titles; the audience was pretty engaged in the bulk of those that I got reports on - very few people left any of them early. The topics were of interest and consistent with the conference's idea - though there were a few that veered into the more "IT-ish" than business. There were a significant number of thought leaders (external) doing the tracks (including me) on topics of strategic interest for the most part. Smart and well done, all in all.
Analyst/Press Relations B+ There was some transition here and it showed in the logistics being somewhat skewed with multiple reports of all in all things not happening - more an indication of some bad choices made when it came to vendors rather than any actual problem on the AR side. To their credit, the AR team did what it had to and resolved the problems as they were made aware of them. Also, for the first time, there were a significant number of analysts not attending this particular conference, being focused more toward Ignite. Those attending however were, even with the logistics issues, treated well, got the meetings that they were looking for, and given some freedom to meet with partners and others that were of either significance or benefit. All in all, given that it was a brand new kind of conference, a good job.
Food (VIP) B- Nothing dramatically bad here, nothing particularly great. Food was edible which is at least part of the point, isn't it?
Food (General Session) B There was some concern for special diets, an express food station in the Exhibition Hall. Otherwise, the same old same old when it came to the options. Decent, fresh but nothing that stood out.
Exhibition Hall A When I walked into this exhibition hall, I thought immediately, "SAP's SAPPHIRE". This was every bit as brilliantly done as my paradigmatic exhibition hall of last year and quite similar in setup. That means wide lanes for traveling, well organized areas for resting including white couches, multiple theaters for presentations in addition to well done and often contemporarily styled booths. It also meant coffee and fruit stations conveniently located throughout the hall - and the signature lunch express area where you could walk in and pick up a salad, sandwich and drink to go - rather than just go sit at tables. There was a Social Media Hub with coffee, tea and nicely baked biscotti for the attendees to go and hang at. Given the brilliance of the layout and design, I went and checked and found out that SAPPHIRE's designer was now a Microsoft events planner and hall designer. I KNEW it. The only thing that I would have done differently is that Microsoft at the most recent Convergence's took their key strategic partners and put their booths inside of the Microsoft-specific exhibition area, highlighting that they were an ecosystem not just a set of solutions. This time they didn't do that. Otherwise...perfection.
Crowd Engagement B- This was a mixed bag. In the tracks, the crowd was attentive and at times participatory in the best ways. The general session was best characterized as they listened. But because this was a new conference and there had been some glitches, there were more than a few grumbles from the crowd re: agendas that didn't appeal (IT people who didn't realize that this was a line of business focused conference) and a weird occasional tension that emanated. Slightly off kilter all in all, it is something that can be easily corrected next year with some longer time for planning.
Logistics C This might have been at the core of whatever issues existed. The best of it was that the crowd was never out of control (meaning there was little or no traffic flow issues or anything that would slow up crowd movement and there were a lot of staff who were there to provide help and did a great job of it most of the time. The worst were that a lot of information had been made available at the last minute and there were some not-so-good vendor choices leading to glitches in transportation etc. The Ernest Morial Convention Center has problems with its layout (getting to rooms on the same floor by going down and then back up to the same floor as the only route, etc.) but that isn't Microsoft's issue. All in all, better planning over a longer time solves most of this.
OVERALL B This was the first time for this type of conference for Microsoft and that did show. The overall idea - split Convergence (in effect) into Envision (a business focused conference) and Ignite (an IT focused conference) is a bit questionable but deserves a second chance. If the problems of this year persist, I would restore Convergence and develop strong explicit tracks for business and IT at Convergence. If they can resolve them, then Envision/Ignite deserves to be continued. I applaud Microsoft for not only taking a shot with this kind of conference but being fully aware that there were going to be problems and being willing to withstand some heat from customers, and people like me, for this. But the applause will die if the problems of the first time persist to the second time. Knowing Microsoft as I do, having been an adviser to them for more than a decade, they will do what they have to fix what broke and show much stronger next year. I trust that. And they have to.

Envision needs another year of seasoning and working out the glitches to see if it's a good idea or just was a chimerical one. All in all, the track content boded well for the conference. It's worth taking another crack at it.

Now, let's take a look at what Microsoft is saying (and said at Build to some extent too). This will be a little more abbreviated than many of my posts because I'm still working a lot of this through and because Microsoft unfortunately at Envision didn't make what I'm hypothesizing here that clear so I have some more investigation to do. But I figured I'd at least throw my preliminary thinking your way. If you feel like it, throw down a comment or two and let me know what you think.

Microsoft's Big Picture in Small Subtexts

This was a peculiar conference that, honestly, I had to struggle with when it came to how to articulate what Microsoft was talking about. Not because it was obscure or unimportant because actually, it was very important but the importance was buried in subtexts and the importance wasn't just in the customer-facing areas but the direction of the company as a whole - and at a level that wasn't so "magnificent" in scope that it couldn't be carried off, but had the magnitude to be a shape-shifter for the industry - if successful. Which of course is always a big "if" for any company. But it also means that it is incumbent on Microsoft to make that utterly clear to those who care enough to listen. Their intentions and vision and execution against that vision needs to be made known.

Broadly (details in a paragraph or two more), Microsoft announced important corporate shifts and commitments that were well-aligned with business realities. What makes this significant and not just generic hot O2, is that Microsoft is one of the few companies that has the resources to make shifts that are big - and from what I can see or at least I can intuit, they have the commitment to do it too. This is not like IBM's noble but ultimately failed attempt to move the entire 400,000 employee company to social business - a transformation that took so long and moved so slowly, despite the best of intentions, that social business was no longer of critical importance in the business pantheon while they were still turning the ship. Plus, the costs of empowering all 400,000 employees, as incredible and laudable an effort as that was, were just too much for the company to bear. That effort began and ended in a relatively short period of time - at least that part of it visible for public consumption. But honestly if IBM was unable to do it by now, it's too late. Hopefully, for their sake, the attempt led to some benefits - expected or unexpected. I don't know. IBM and I don't talk much at all.

Microsoft isn't doing anything of that magnitude when it comes to its corporate cultural shift. If I had to encapsulate what I hear Satya Nadella say and others support at Envision it is that Microsoft is not going to be a software company per se any longer but a company that is devoted to being a critical part of the infrastructure of business via Azure and businesses via thoroughly contemporized versions of Office and various Dynamics applications - and that Dynamics would become a business solutions platform and Office a unified communications platform - all with the express purpose of providing those highly personalized outcomes that lead to major gains in productivity. Microsoft becomes (if they achieve their vision) the company that is fully interwoven, enmeshed in the 21st century business infrastructure. That would be the "in-the-nutshell" (what a quaint expression) version.

OK, but what does that mean - and did Microsoft really say that?

I'm going to answer the latter first. I think so. I'm not 100 percent sure that this was the theme, the message, because it was done through references and inferences and piecemeal hints but never outright said. So you'll have to trust me - or not - that this is what Microsoft seemed to be saying. That's what I mean by saying it was all subtexts. There was no framework for the realization of this vision presented, even though I would imagine internally it exists and I saw some evidence that at least on the Dynamics CRM side, the work is going on that indicates this is what the company does. Though, again, no one outright said that. Nor was it evident directly anywhere off the stage either.

So what does this mean broken down a bit - based on what I heard and observed and pieced together?

It means, platforms as a service, infrastructure, devices, ecosystems, software as an operational core, and ubiquitous cloud delivery. It doesn't mean applications, per se. Or even solutions per se. What Microsoft is trying to be is a core component of the business infrastructure at the industry and market level - which means that they can play at the enterprise level, and with small and mid-sized businesses - i.e. all sized businesses. If Microsoft's offerings are inculcated into that infrastructure via their services and their platforms, then the size of the business as well as the specialties of the businesses (e.g. vertical or whatever else) can be handled. They have devices, tools and offerings that provide customization/personalization to need.

This is being understood in the context of customer engagement. Satya's comment was "we all know that revenue and profit come after customer engagement." I couldn't agree more. Gallup data from 2014 states that a fully engaged customer provides a 23 percent premium "in share of wallet, profitability, revenue and relationship growth." (This is from their State of the Consumer Report which you can get here, free of charge, but it requires registration). That data gives color to why customer engagement is top of mind at companies of all sizes, worldwide. So Mr. Nadella is nailing it here. Additionally, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which has been working with the tagline "intelligent customer engagement", after things I saw with their product and roadmap (I can't go into them yet, sorry. But soon) in combination with their partners, that prove that they are inculcating the necessary parts into an engagement ecosystem of their own making.

The vision and thinking that governs Microsoft in this (I think - this is ALL supposition on my part) seems to be in part built around the idea that the world has undergone a communications revolution - something I've been saying for years - which of course means that I might be projecting here. One business outcome for Microsoft as Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO put it, "we" (Microsoft) needs to look at conversations as platforms - and to do that we have to build strong platforms for "personal network productivity." He used Skype as a reference point mentioning that Skype fosters 300 million communications and 3 billion communications interactions per month - massive numbers of conversations. What makes this particularly important is that Skype has reached a level of ubiquity so powerful that it's become a verb. That's not just a useful metaphor - that shows the level of interpenetration into the personal communications infrastructure that Microsoft is aspiring to on a much larger level. The power of that in combination with Azure can't be underestimated.

Before you get too far down into the Azure versus Amazon Web Services "which is the king?" weeds, keep in mind that in a recently released JP Morgan CIO study, when those CIOs were asked, ""Which IT mega-vendor will be most critical and indispensable to your organization's IT environment in the future, and why," the winner by far was Microsoft Azure, despite the fact that AWS revenue at $8.1 billion, dwarfs Azure revenue at $1.1 billion and you have this company called Alphabet nee Google in the mix too. While I wouldn't bet too much on any one survey, since you can find surveys to prove whatever you want to prove, I would, though see this is an interesting indicator of:

  1. How mission-critically important Microsoft is seen to be to the larger IT world even if it loses some of its mojo re: consumers here and there.
  2. How well that line of thinking fits into Microsoft's current mission to become the threads in the cloth of 21st century business infrastructure. How amazingly well, really.

So what would this look like?

  1. At the device level, including Internet of Things (IoT), Microsoft Windows 10 and other operating layer systems are embedded in devices ranging from medical devices to operating systems in mobile smart devices.
  2. At the operational level, Microsoft Dynamics is running the front (CRM) and back (AX) ends of businesses, day to day.
  3. At the level of communications, Office 365 is the unified communications hub for about 14 related products including Skype - and fosters productivity.
  4. At the level of infrastructure, Azure is the development and delivery framework and system
  5. At the engagement level, CRM and the partner network (e.g. Lithium, Coveo, Thunderhead) are delivering the systems of engagement and record and Power BI and Cortana Intelligence, etc are providing the "systems of intelligence" (not my construct theirs - I don't like that name for analytics).
  6. At the consumer level - XBOX and its adjuncts are providing the customer experience and the media hubs for everyone's living rooms. Plus of course, Office 365 carries over into the B2C world as well as the business world. Also integrated as a unified communications system. Not as much the platform.
  7. Industrialize OneDrive to handle storage in the cloud for whoever they want.
  8. HoloLens provides augmented reality to enhance engagement and also help solve problems.
  9. Take all of this, weave it into whole cloth and you have something that can cover the infrastructure of 21st century business - and I think its Microsoft's ambition to do just that.

They aren't just keeping it at this cloud-driven high tech meat and potatoes either. Satya in his speech gave a lengthy example that involved the use of their Cortana Intelligence product in monitoring water consumption for anomalies. When Cortana Intelligence is able to predict an anomaly that requires service, it proactively generates the work order and then uses Microsoft's field service product (their integrated and enhanced version of FieldOne, acquired last year) to locate the best tech for the job - based on skill set, location, inventory. Cortana Intelligence then predicts the time to resolution of the problem that it anticipated or found and gives the tech the best identified solution to the problem.

Arguably this is the most tentative post I've written in a long time. The reason is that I am constructing it through inferences and some speculation on my part. I think that the reasoning is sound, though. If this is what Microsoft is doing, they need to outright say it. It's a smart move. However, considering that Salesforce has had a similar ambition since 2002, it is something that I think neither company -- nor any others -- will achieve exclusively. But Microsoft is one of those companies that you can trust to carry out their ambition. Whether they fail or succeed is up to them - and the clarity they need to show in that ambition.

Next moves are completely in your hands, Microsoft. As someone who I forget (a famous person) said, "stop pussyfooting around." Whatever it is you are thinking, make it crystal clear. I may be a mile off, or I may be right, but either way, Microsoft has to be absolutely explicit about what it is thinking. Not being so will only hurt them. Being so will help. I'd love it to be the latter.

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