Inside SharePoint

Microsoft Should Iron Out SharePoint's Social Fabric

What Microsoft can learn from the partner ecosystem as SharePoint 2016 gets ready for release.

At the first European SharePoint Conference in Berlin four years ago, I presented a session on the social roadmap within SharePoint 2010. To be perfectly honest, I gave the platform a very low rating, with some competitors and consumer-based solutions ranking much higher. This was a couple years back, of course, during the era when enterprise social networks (ESNs) were quickly coming onto the corporate radar, and organizations were just scratching the surface on trying to understand why their employees were slow to adopt the uninspiring SharePoint user experience (UX). SharePoint included some rudimentary blogging and wiki capabilities, with MySites not quite delivering the advanced user profile capabilities offered by many of the rising stars in consumer social, like Facebook and LinkedIn.

Fast-forward to today, and we are on the eve of SharePoint 2016 and a rapidly growing Office 365 platform. The individual features that make up the category of social have definitely matured inside of SharePoint, but the UX is still struggling to "find itself" in an increasingly social world. The UX in SharePoint 2016 looks almost identical to what was done in 2013. Functional, but nothing to get users excited and motivated, which means that teams will continue to add themes and design elements. And it also means that users will gravitate toward more social tools and solutions, even if it means departing the SharePoint ecosystem to find the UX that best fits.

Social has become ubiquitous to the way in which we collaborate. We use social tools every day, for both personal and professional activities -- from chatting with online support for your bank, to sorting through reviews of products on Amazon based on ratings and customer feedback, to working with a co-worker to update the customer profile and activities in your customer relationship management (CRM) platform.

Yes, it's all social collaboration. Of course, we've been so inundated with poorly constructed marketing that the term "social" has fallen out of favor due to overuse. Rather than talk about social, we want to talk about specific business impacts, about improving communication and about improving the end-to-end user experience.

Microsoft partners have long recognized the shortcomings of the UX in SharePoint and have sought to fill the gaps. Industry giants Nintex and K2 did not get into the business process management space for purely altruistic reasons -- they saw an enormous opportunity to solve gaps within the SharePoint ecosystem and create successful businesses. But as a direct result of ISVs like these and the gaps they identified, Microsoft stepped up to improve the platform, offering some of its own workflow and BPM capability, but also making changes to APIs and the underlying architecture to enable partners to also improve their offerings. Those updates and improvements then drive the ISV community to invest in additional innovation, which means better options for customers, and the whole cycle repeats itself.

I suspect that this pattern or cycle is readying itself to fix the UX gap. The Microsoft partner ecosystem has always been a leading indicator of where SharePoint needs to go as a platform. Sometimes it makes sense for SharePoint to learn from the ecosystem and add the capability (build or buy), and other times it just doesn't make fiscal sense for the Redmond team to pursue certain capabilities and instead to simply support partner solutions. For many years, migration and administration tools have fallen into this category. UX is a great example of where the partner community has shown Microsoft the correct path forward, with many vendors creating add-ins and templates to make the SharePoint UX much more compelling for end users -- which has a direct and measurable impact on adoption and engagement.

To be fair, SharePoint has been going through a foundational shift from a platform that was developed for on-premises environments and then adapted for the cloud, to a platform that was architected entirely for the cloud and then adapted for on-prem (SharePoint 2016). With the acquisition of Yammer a couple years back, and the resulting split of focus around traditional document-based collaboration and social collaboration, it's not surprising that the company has lost a bit of focus on solving the UX problem.

On top of that, the collaboration space has moved. Management and end user expectations have evolved due largely to the maturing of the entire collaboration segment. Tools such as Slack and WhatsApp that focus on improving team communication, and the rapid growth of task and project management solutions like Trello and Basecamp, there are a veritable cornucopia of solutions available to draw attention away from SharePoint -- none of them providing the span of capabilities, but most providing their own spin on things, and delivering small-but-essential productivity improvements.

While Microsoft has focused on the massive tasks needed to build out and scale their cloud infrastructure, supporting this business and technology transformation, a new breed of strategic Integrators (SIs) has stepped in to offer streamlined and packaged intranet solutions that provide a superior experience than what is available out-of-the-box from SharePoint. By pre-building many of the most common utilities and frameworks for most intranets while offering a modern, responsive, and social UX, these SI partners allow companies to focus less on the technology and quickly deploy SharePoint -- whether online or on-prem.

Wasn't that the point of SharePoint in the first place? To automate, streamline, and simplify business activities under a single platform, allowing customers to focus less on the technology and more on their business?

Microsoft needs to refocus their efforts on the UX, and to rethink their social strategy -- plain and simple. If I can be perfectly honest here, a bolt-on, separate-but-equal approach with Yammer is not what most customers want. I'm not knocking Yammer -- there are use cases where it makes perfect sense, and organizations that prefer social collaboration to an e-mail or document-based model can be very successful and happy on the service. Microsoft talks extensively about different modalities of collaboration, and some companies want less e-mail and document-centric collaboration, and more of a Facebook-like enterprise social network (ESN) model. For the latter, Yammer is a great fit. But Microsoft has been unable to find the right messaging around how Yammer integrates with the rest of their collaboration assets, which has impacted their ability to present a clear and concise message about social within their end-to-end UX.

My sense is that Microsoft should stop trying to beat a square peg into a round hole with Yammer and spend its time and resources to clarify their message on the rest of the SharePoint UX. This may impact the various partners out there that are focusing on the UX gaps, but for SharePoint -- and Office 365 -- to move forward, the cycle needs to continue so that innovation continues.

What the Intranet-in-a-box vendors need to prepare for is that SharePoint will undoubtedly fix the UX experience at some point. I think Microsoft is listening to what the market is telling them, and does recognize that the partner ecosystem is pointing in the direction customers want.

With another European SharePoint Conference currently underway, this year keynoted by Microsoft CVP Jeff Teper, I expect we're going to hear more about UX in the coming weeks. With all the talk about "transforming collaboration" coming out of Redmond, my hope is that Microsoft doesn't just transform for transformation's sake, but learns from their partners and makes the necessary changes to their social fabric to give their customers the UX they want and need. From there, partners will continue to innovate -- but for an even more rapidly growing customer base.


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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