How (and why) Microsoft is looking at freelance experts as its next big target for Office

Microsoft launched a collection of tools and templates aimed at freelance workers late last year. Moving forward, Microsoft has much bigger plans to target those in the 'gig economy.'

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Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft is looking for ways to grow its Office user base by enlarging the overall market for Office. Company officials have made "firstline workers" a key target audience for Microsoft productivity applications. But there's another potentially hot market Microsoft is pursuing with Office, too: Freelancers.

Freelancers are not only freelance writers like me. It's the overall pool of experts who perform tasks for money for a set period of time. Think about those working with/for TaskRabbit, Fancy Hands, Magic, Fiverr. These are the people who power the so-called "gig economy." (And yes, in case you're wondering, there are people at Microsoft already talking up the "gig mindset" as a corollary to the "growth mindset.")

In December last year, Microsoft announced the Microsoft 365 freelance toolkit, which it defined as "a curated set of tools, templates and best practices that help Microsoft customers launch, execute, and manage freelance programs at scale." The toolkit included a SharePoint communication site template for onboarding; Teams guidance; Power BI for creating reports and dashboards; and Flow for automating workflows. Microsoft launched the toolkit in conjunction with Upwork Enterprise as its go-to-market partner, which has its own compliance and freelance sourcing solution.

Rumors circulated around the time of the freelance toolkit launch that Microsoft might be interested in buying Upwork, but so far, that hasn't come to pass.

So far, Microsoft hasn't connected its freelance toolkit and freelancer/gig economy strategy with anything from LinkedIn -- nor with its own human resource-focused Dynamics 365 for Talent app. (That said, the Dynamics 365 for Talent team is working on expanding its footprint with more software-as-a-service HR applications, so maybe this will happen.) 

In the meantime, I wouldn't be surprised to see Microsoft integrate Cortana and other "AI" technologies here, especially given this wording from a recent job posting on its careers site: 

"We believe that every modern productivity application will need to connect users to experts. We call this trend Expert Intelligence, and see Microsoft (the world's largest productivity company) as being central to this trend." 

In that same job posting, Microsoft references "the human cloud, and the ability for technology to hyper-efficiently match users to experts who can provide a guaranteed successful outcome in near-real-time."  (Human cloud is likely a reference to the aforementioned HR/human-capital management suite it's working on as part of Dynamics.)

"We think about expert intelligence as a common service that can be leveraged across our company. At the same time we need to demonstrate real customer value on specific scenarios (which we are building)," the job post adds.

Another job posting for a Senior Program Manager for the toolkit noted that this team is operating as a "startup" within the Office organization. During Microsoft's fiscal 2020 (which starts July 1, 2019), Microsoft will be looking to expand its footprint by signing up more third-party partners, including "key professional services" firms and systems integrators.

That same posting notes that Microsoft is exploring other technologies it can leverage with the Toolkit beyond SharePoint, Teams, PowerBI and Flow and calls out Windows Virtual Desktop/Azure Virtual Machines as a strong possibility.

Microsoft watchers often ask me what I think will be the next killer app that Microsoft will add to its Office line-up to enable it to keep growing. I think the more apt question is which new customer types will Microsoft target beyond Office's traditional desktop/knowledge worker base in order to grow its Office base.