Inside SharePoint

Microsoft Looks To Bring Social Back to SharePoint with Office Graph

Within the last two years, Microsoft has gone from laggard to innovator in the enterprise social space but with SharePoint and the Office 365 platform, the company must keep its eyes focused on productivity and demonstrate real business value if it wants to maintain leadership in the enterprise.

Within the enterprise, nobody can declare themselves the "winner" of the social space. While Microsoft is moving quickly in that direction, it has been a circuitous route, if anything.

Since the release of the SharePoint 2010 platform, one of the primary criticisms of the platform has been its inability to match the innovation of consumer-based social tools. Not that an enterprise-class team and document collaboration vendor should try to match the capabilities of what are, more often than not, a collection of unsecure, noncompliant, sometimes untested tools (beta, anyone?) that will not stand up under the scrutiny of most internal auditors and governance bodies who look out for the best interests of their end users.

But here's the rub: if you don't offer end users the tools they want, and make key features available on the mobile devices (and operating systems) they want to use, all of those security, auditing, compliance, and reporting standards will become irrelevant because people won't use your platform. And if people aren't using the platform, what are you keeping secure? What organizations are finding is that the more locked down their platforms, the greater the threat of intellectual property being shared across unsupported cloud and social platforms.

That's the plain and simple fact about collaboration tools in the modern workplace. As end users, we want what we want. Am I right?

Over the years, Microsoft has tried to play ball. Remember Mesh? How about all of those various Live services? While Microsoft was concentrating on dominating the server and tools business, and with SharePoint rapidly taking over the enterprise collaboration space, the company did not anticipate the rise of social. To be fair, it is difficult for any platform vendor to innovate across the entire user experience (UX), much less blending form and function within the boundaries of corporate security and governance.

SharePoint 2010 attempted to bolt on many of the social capabilities end users wanted, but much as the villagers revolted at the site of Frankenstein's monster, people pushed back against the ruddy, half-working social capabilities in SharePoint 2010.

Viewing this failure as a threat to the fastest growing product in company history (at the time), Microsoft took this feedback and went back into the shop, returning with SharePoint 2013. While not perfect, Microsoft had clearly thought about the role of social within the enterprise, and how conversations and community interaction increase in value when tied to related content and people. SharePoint 2013 included a more integrated, thoughtful collection of social features that sought to enhance and personalize the SharePoint experience, while adhering to the enterprise collaboration permissions model and hierarchical structures.

And then Microsoft acquired Yammer, which threw everyone for a loop. Yes, as a competitive stop, it made perfect sense. And yes, there were certainly cultural and innovation benefits to the move -- but it also slowed down the progress made with SharePoint 2013 as everyone inside and outside of the company paused to understand the implications. Unfortunately, it was during this confusing time that Microsoft got lost within its own messaging. The company seemed to lose sight of what the core of their SharePoint users really wanted, which was a social fabric within the team and document collaboration structure. Instead, social became an external and disconnected experience.

The result was that there was a halt in the innovation coming out of Redmond around social. Competitors made their moves, and SharePoint lost some of its luster during this period. While Microsoft rallied around the mantra of "Just Use Yammer," many customers argued that the one-size-fits-all Yammer model simply did not meet their business needs.

And just as it seemed Microsoft was stagnating on social, it announced Office Graph. While the marketplace was zigging, Microsoft zagged. In one fell swoop, the ship was righted. The train was back on its tracks. 

The original idea of social as a layer within the more structured team and documentation collaboration, which was a major aspect of the social story within SharePoint 2013, was back on track -- but with more engine under the hood than ever before. Office Graph harnesses the computing power of the cloud to analyze connections and relationships between people, content and activities in a way that would be cost prohibitive for even the largest of companies to duplicate in an on-premises deployment. Using machine learning, it also has the ability to monitor and learn from your online movements and behaviors, constantly improving the quality and relevancy of the results it surfaces -- which means it can better deliver on the promises of more personalized and intelligent solutions, improving adoption and engagement through enhanced personal productivity.

The evolution is not over yet, of course. Microsoft is still fine tuning its story around Yammer versus Office 365 Groups, which seems to overlap in many ways. But ignoring the brand names, the capability that is Yammer is becoming less of a destination, and more of an integrated part of the overall platform. Threaded discussions (Yammer Groups) can now be accessed through Office 365 Groups, within Exchange Online, and alongside your documents, PowerPoint presentations, and other Office artefacts hosted in SharePoint Online or OneDrive for Business. If you're reading through e-mail via Outlook and come across an e-mail that should be shared with one of your project teams, instead of jumping over to a separate URL to find or start a discussion, the discussion comes to you by sharing that email with your project Group right from Outlook -- and as a result, you will connect or associate that e-mail and discussion to all related conversations, content and people. And when searching for people, content, or ideas, those same discussions are now part of the search results. All of this thanks to the Office Graph.

While there is still much work to be accomplished, the idea of a social fabric across the Office 365 platform -- and all of its workloads, from e-mail to Office productivity to CRM -- is finally becoming a reality, and competitors are struggling to catch up.


About the Author

Christian Buckley is an independent researcher, technology evangelist and Office Servers & Services MVP with more than 25 years of experience working with collaboration, social and supply chain technology.


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