When it comes to using technology to improve workforce collaboration, the discussion today almost always includes the company most associated with business productivity solutions, Microsoft. Outlook, SharePoint, Skype for Business, and Office 365 are some of the most widely used collaborative applications today.
The company's vast and ubiquitous worldwide presence with its operating system and productivity tools on desktops, laptops, and now popular mobile devices including iOS and especially Android, has given it primacy of place in the collaboration conversation, despite arguably being one-upped by numerous nimbler competitors from a features and capabilities standpoint in recent years.
Consequently, as innovation in collaboration tools continues at an astounding pace, as I observed in last year's summary of recent events in the industry, Microsoft has sometimes been perceived as slow to add the latest concepts and ideas to its solutions. Yet that now seems to be changing, as I learned when I sat down recently with the company to learn about its current vision for enterprise collaboration.
In a discussion earlier this week, I received an overview of what Microsoft is currently thinking about in digital collaboration during the course of a wide-ranging discussion with Bryan Goode, Senior Director, Office 365, and Christophe Fiessinger, Product Manager, Office 365.
Bryan, who is a relative newcomer to Microsoft, has been offering up an intriguing new vision for the future of digital teamwork over the last year, including concepts like dynamic teams, the enablement of "swarm intelligence", and building a common intelligent fabric for collaboration across the company's various productivity tools, particularly with what I consider to be the company's flagship new capabilities, Office 365 Groups and Office 365 Graph. The former allows teams to be assembled and managed on the fly while the latter is an SDK that opens up the platform to create powerful new applications like Microsoft's search and discovery tool, Delve.
Vision: Dynamic, Team-Centered Collaboration Spaces
Bryan has previously noted that these capabilities are now at the core of a more evolved, integrated, and connected model for collaboration, which puts people and teams in the center of a new, holistic digital team-based canvas, accessing the array of productivity tools the company offers -- together with their documents, conversations, and data -- to bring to bear the right tool for the job on-demand:
"This belief in a common intelligent fabric is why we've introduced Office 365 Groups and Office Graph, two technologies that span Office 365 and beyond, helping teams self-organize, work together and build upon the expertise of others--ringing to life the inherent power of your network and powering personalized discovery experiences."
In my conversation with Bryan, he noted that today's workplace has evolved and "workers now expect to collaborate early and often." What's more, "all work now is teamwork" and requires solutions that specifically take this into account.
Bryan also explored the four major elements of Microsoft's vision for digital teamwork, which is about producing results in terms of productivity, though the realization of four planks: a) Capabilities that directly enable collaboration, b) intelligence, namely analytics that produces insight to support collaboration, c) mobility, and d) trust. While the first three elements are common in most collaborative visions these days, trust is a little unusual to see here. Bryan says it entails everything from cybersecurity to knowing that the tools will work as advertised and be available, both key points as Microsoft's vision here is almost entirely cloud-based. Delivering on trust will be essential to addressing long-standing concerns in the CIO's office about control, service levels, and governance of cloud-based applications like Office 365.
While digital productivity itself used to center around a specific desktop application and the documents it could manage, the company's collaboration focus has shifted away from individual solutions to broadly enabling groups of people in digital spaces around a central goal or objective using a diverse yet connected toolset. These groups can come together quickly, picking and choosing among an array of Microsoft applications within a common collaborative construct -- Office 365 Groups in this case -- that keeps their documents, files, and content -- including both structured documents and unstructured conversations -- in a single managed space.
In a previous era, a common collaborative area consisted of a file share, an e-mail thread, or a team site. No more. With Office 365 Groups, Microsoft has shifted its vision for collaboration into a hub and spoke model, with the hub being the team, and the spokes connected to applications and business documents/data along with vital supporting functions like storage, search, and discovery.
These days, Bryan said to me, the reality is that "collaboration isn't one tool. It's no longer about giving people a single tool and telling them that it's collaboration." While enabling choice is likely to be received well, it underscores a key issue: The ongoing tension between general purpose collaborative suites and specific apps highly tuned to address a particular collaborative scenario, the reconciling of which has long been an issue in the industry and has led to the so-called "collaboration paradox."
Microsoft's hub and spoke model for collaboration enables a more connected experience that might address the challenge of fragmentation by separating the structure and operation of the team from the toolset, potentially addressing the concerns that bulky suites or single function app proliferation bring to the table, while avoiding an all-or-nothing kitchen sink approach. Instead, teams can use whatever tools they prefer in their space.
Will Microsoft enable apps like Slack did?
I pressed this point, asking if Microsoft will open up Office 365 Groups to other applications. Fiessinger jumped in at this point, saying "we do believe in openness and extensibility. For example we have APIs to create groups and connect to groups that already exist. Apps can interact with the Office 365 graph capability" and provide additional features. After our conversation, I made an examination of the Graph SDK and it's clear that new 3rd party applications can in fact be built that fully interact with Office 365 Groups. This almost certainly means that Microsoft will not be the only company building integrations between teams working in Groups and other collaborative or productivity applications.
In addition, I asked about mobile support for Microsoft's collaboration solutions, which I've noted before haven't always been that capable, especially given the company's position in the market. Bryan indicated this is very much in the process of changing and that going forward the company will be "mobile-first, cloud-first, and will support iOS or Android in a very first class way."
Observing to Bryan that a lot of companies are not yet fully migrated over to Microsoft's latest cloud services, I asked him what the best way to catch up is, so they can access this new collaborative vision. He confirmed what Microsoft watchers like Mary Joe Foley have recently observed, that put simply, customers will have to do what's needed to "get to the cloud", as that's the center of gravity for the company's innovation and development, as well as the primary future for Microsoft's products and services.
What about Yammer?
Finally, I asked about the future of Yammer, Microsoft's main enterprise social network offering yet a solution that has sometimes seemed inclined to languish. Bryan had a different view and was quite bullish on the platform, which is Microsoft's most native social capability:
"We have a great roadmap for Yammer. We've made a lot of progress a lot of the years. Yammer is now by default for every Office 365 user. We are investing in mobile clients, trust, security, and compliance. We have recently added EU user privacy clauses and HIPPA compliance. 85% of the Fortune 500 now uses Yammer. Certainly it's something that we're fully committed to, including maintaining a large and dedicated development team."
All in all, it's clear that Microsoft has a more comprehensive, mature, and connected vision for collaboration than we've seen before, and one that stands to resonate with many businesses, by providing more solution choices, resolving some of the fragmentation across its offerings, and giving teams a more holistic and integrated canvas upon which to work together. Open questions include whether the Graph SDK is anything close to sufficient to compete with vibrant application integration ecosystems like the one Slack has created, or where how the company intends to respond to the key emerging trends like intelligent chatbots or cognitive supported collaboration.
As I indicated in my latest round-up of top enterprise intranet and collaboration tools, where I put SharePoint first and Yammer in the top 10, Microsoft still remains the 800 pound gorilla in the industry when it comes to collaboration. With this more advanced and contemporary vision for collaboration, it's likely to stay that way for now, though there still remains plenty of room for competition.