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What We Learned About Microsoft’s Social Roadmap at Ignite 2015

Guest blog post by Christian Buckley, Office 365 MVP

When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced during his 2014 Worldwide Partner Conference keynote that Microsoft was repositioning itself around “platforms and productivity,” the changes within product teams was already fully underway. The productivity roadmap for SharePoint, and the broader Office 365 platform of which it was a key component, had already gone through some changes. Microsoft was already beginning to articulate their focus around end-to-end customer “experiences”. These included an integral social layer built on top of a social graph, branded Office Graph, with “NextGen Portal” experiences that leveraged the Office Graph, such as Delve, Clutter, and Office 365 Groups. The challenge for customers, however, continues to be the need to decipher these new features and capabilities and align them with their own collaboration strategies and roadmaps. Moreover everybody needs understand how the timing of their release will meet their own timelines, if at all.

At the Microsoft’s Ignite Conference in Chicago earlier this month, the software giant focused on the progress made against this productivity vision, and stayed largely on message with what had been promised in the past year. However, there continue to be large gaps within the roadmap — which companies like Beezy are better able to fill.

For those unfamiliar with Microsoft’s social roadmap, the ideas behind Office Graph and its resulting user experience are not new. The term “social graph” was coined by Facebook and has been around for a decade. Even earlier incarnations of network graphing go back to the earliest days of the Internet. The idea behind the social graph is to graphically depict the relationships between people and objects (documents, images, etc.) within a network. Office Graph is simply Microsoft’s version of a social graph, encompassing data from Exchange, Outlook, SharePoint, Office, Lync and Yammer, and which was introduced in March 2014 under the codename of Oslo.

Office Delve - Project Oslo

Of course, because of the vast processing power needed to calculate the relationships of all of these data objects, and their connections to people, the Office Graph is only available through the cloud. For the many organizations unable or unwilling to move key data to the cloud at this time, the options today are limited, and the timeline for hybrid solutions unclear. While Microsoft has announced plans to help on premises customers to connect to the Office Graph via hybrid “cloud connectors,” this graphing capability will always be in the cloud. Therefore, most of the NextGen Portal experiences being developed will also be cloud or hybrid solutions. Forcing customers to start thinking about their long-term cloud strategies.

Delve was the first experience to tap into the power of the Office Graph. Delve is a next gen search portal, delivering results based on our social relationships and activities across Office 365. Delve not only provides filtered views into content based on user, activity, and relationships, but it learns from our activity — refining its results each time we use the platform. With the announcement and general availability of the Office Graph, Microsoft mentioned a number of experiences beyond just Delve, all of which took center stage at Ignite this month: Groups, Inline social, Video Portal (and other next gen portals), OneDrive for Business, and Data-loss prevention.

While you can find all of the Ignite sessions available online through Microsoft’s Channel 9 (http://channel9.msdn.com/), I thought I’d provide a quick snapshot on the current state of each:

Office 365 Groups. The idea behind Groups is to provide an integrated experience across all Office 365 workloads. In many ways, Groups are a next generation distribution list (DL), built upon and extending Exchange Online. What this means is that my project team can create a Group that includes a OneDrive for Business folder, a Yammer group, a shared calendar, and a filtered view of content and conversations through Delve. This allows each team member to be more productive through a streamlined collaboration experience across all of these tools. I can still wade through email, my SharePoint sites, and various Yammer conversations to find information — or use a designated Office 365 Group to interact with this specific group around specific content and topics.

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Yammer vs “Inline” Social. With Yammer integration slowly being made available through the REST API, the messaging (well, the perceived messaging) coming out of Ignite is that Office 365 Groups will be the primary social experience for teams, while Yammer will remain as a community-building tool for less targeted collaboration. Instead of going to a Yammer network to engage in a discussion, much of this will happen through inline social experiences. Through inline social discussions, within threaded discussions around individual Office documents, and within Outlook. The idea here is to help people engage in discussion where they are working rather than by pushing them to another URL. Even with Yammer now being included in the Office 365 application launcher (lovingly referred to as the “waffle”), social interactions are more meaningful and lasting when tied to specific work activities. Context makes social meaningful.
The biggest problem with the marketing message surrounding Groups is: which conversation thread do I follow? Conversations can happen inside of Outlook or alongside a Word document or PowerPoint slide, but then there are also conversations in Yammer. Which one do you use? And why are these being developed as different platforms rather than a unified platform? Isn’t this contextual social experience in Groups similar, in many ways, to what we had with the native social capabilities in SharePoint 2013 on-premises — before we were told to stop using it and to move to Yammer? Now we are being directed back to Office 365 Groups, again splitting our social activities between tools?

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Video (NextGen) Portals. The Video Portal was the first of a series of next generation experiences to be released by Microsoft that takes full advantage of the Office Graph capability, giving businesses a powerful new platform for internal and external video sharing, with ties to context and conversation within the enterprise. After talking about “other next gen portals) for the past year, Ignite included a sneak peek at forthcoming next gen portals, including updates to the Video portal,  a new knowledge management portal (code named “InfoPedia”), new blog and content authoring experiences, and a new people portal (think revamped MySites). While most of the features and capabilities highlighted at Ignite looked promising, for most of it Microsoft has not yet offered a delivery timeline, and indicated that some of what was shown might never be delivered, depending on priorities and early customer feedback.
OneDrive for Business. As a standalone consumer offering, OneDrive (previously SkyDrive) has been around for many years, but interest in OneDrive for Business has been growing steadily since its release. While the platform has suffered from a much-discussed sync issue, resolving this is at the top of Microsoft’s priorities — which is critical, as OneDrive for Business has become a centerpiece for solving Microsoft’s competitive problem with cloud-based storage solutions, such as Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and others. With further integration into the Office 365 stack, OneDrive storage has become a MySite replacement, and a natural storage receptacle for all ad hoc content. Microsoft is moving in the direction of a unified solution, but Redmond has still not reached a single storage message for all content (SharePoint, Yammer, OneDrive for Business, and Exchange attachments),.
Data-Loss Prevention. One of the topics which has been mentioned across various Microsoft presentations and announcements, but with little detail, has been improvements to the management layer across the several solutions within the Office 365 platform. At Ignite, Microsoft opened up a bit more on this strategy, and shared details of their data loss prevention (DLP) and compliance strategies for the platform, extending some of their leadership in this category from Exchange over to SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business. Microsoft also announced expansion of the management layer APIs, showcasing partner solutions already taking advantage of these advanced capabilities.

Obviously, this is just a small snapshot of what Microsoft shared at Ignite, but it does point to where Microsoft is taking the Office 365 platform — and social collaboration in general. Even if there are still many gaps in the timeline. For end users and customers, these new offerings look enticing. Promising features and capabilities in line with many of the consumer experiences we have come to expect from our enterprise platforms. Which is great news: we all want more integrated, streamlined experiences that do not force us to use pop-up windows and multiple logins, and where our conversations and connections impact what we see and how we interact going forward. The big question remains: what will be delivered, and by when?

While I am genuinely excited about the direction Microsoft is heading, I always like to temper the excitement around new technology with certainly realities. For one, there is always a gap between the vision presented and what it takes to actually implement. And then there are the specific requirements driving your business, which may not fit into the scenarios presented. Within each of these remains strong opportunities for partners to harness these new capabilities and, in many cases, out-innovate what Microsoft can provide. One of the primary reasons I have been a fan of Beezy for the past couple years has been their ability to fill many of the Microsoft gaps, and deliver what I feel to be the most robust, feature-rich social experience for the SharePoint platform.

I do believe that the Office Graph (and the idea of the social graph) is one of the biggest ideas to come out of Redmond, and is going to dramatically change how organizations collaborate in the future — delivered through a combination of next generation portal solutions from Microsoft and the partner community. I know the Beezy team is hard at work looking at ways to integrate with the Office Graph and Yammer APIs, and am looking forward seeing their vision for SharePoint’s next gen social experience.

Christian Buckley

Christian Buckley

Chief Marketing Officer for Beezy. Passionate about all things collaboration & social. Office365 MVP.