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Explaining the Microsoft / Yammer “Social Layer”

We’ve read the posts, we’ve heard the presentations, we’ve seen the MTC sessions– but what exactly does Microsoft’s new strategy for Enterprise Social mean?  I’m going to try and break that down both for IT architects and the average consumer.  (See an annotated image version here for easy sharing.)
Ever since Jared Spataro’s official update to Microsoft’s Roadmap for Enterprise Social hit the SharePoint Blog earlier this spring, we’ve been hearing a lot of buzz on the direction for Yammer and SharePoint.  Since then, we’ve seen Microsoft’s take at several conferences.  From ten thousand feet, this is a “social layer” across Microsoft’s entire productivity suite.  Naturally, now people want to know what that “social layer” really means.
We’ve discussed this topic before—in fact, if you go back through the blog, we’ve been talking about it in one form or another since Microsoft acquired Yammer—but I would like to spend a little more time explaining what the “social layer” is and why it sets Microsoft apart from both their platform competitors and smaller, “best of breed” solutions.  (Caveat: This is one independent thinker’s take, and not the official Redmond explanation, but I think this is needed.)
“Social Middleware”
Microsoft has presented the social layer as a concept that spans some familiar places to get work done: Yammer, Office 365, SharePoint, Dynamics CRM, and line of business applications.  I’ve found that an accurate description—albeit completely unhip and leveraging a somewhat dated, admittedly IBM-flavored reference—is the term “social middleware”.  I realize this term could get me killed by people in marketing, but I think it will make pretty good sense to IT architects.
In the vision of the social layer, the cloud-based services provided by Yammer now dig deep into personal interactions, productivity, collaboration, and business data in order to connect them to people and one another.
Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that Yammer has anything to do with bloated architectures and product integrations reliant on costly middleware to work together.  No, I’m thinking high concept here—the idea that this layer of services is the glue that holds everything together, the lingua franca of the babbling federation of nation-states that is the set of applications, hardware and data people use to get work done wherever they are.
If you’re not an IT architect, consider this: If you’re on Yammer, the social layer is what gets everything else you care about into Yammer.  Easy enough.
Wait, I Thought Yammer Was The Social Layer?
Well, yes and no.  In the graphic above, Yammer is the place where people interact—call the it the corporate Facebook—and the social layer is the set of services that ties everything else into that place.  In fact, several of the Microsoft products shown in the graphic seem to have competing priorities if we view them in a more traditional sense.
To understand the vision, then, it might be helpful if we marked up the graphic (however clumsily) with some simple annotations as to what those products actually do.
Yammer becomes (remains?) the corporate social hub, as noted above.  Interestingly, Gartner suggests that in the next few years enterprise social will go from being a destination (as we see here) to an aggregation tool, pulling in updates from many feeds—think Hootsuite.  It will be interesting to watch how and if Yammer transforms in that direction.
Office 365 is about email, Lync, and productivity—you know, Word, PowerPoint and Excel.  Microsoft has truly gone “all in” with Office in the cloud, so think about this as Office + Email + Unified Communications.
SharePoint has traditionally been positioned to do some of the things above, so I’m wondering if this means we will finally see the scope of this platform narrowed and focused a bit.  It still does many things beyond social and Office web apps, though, primarily—Intranet content and publishing, document-centric collaboration and management, Enterprise Search and serving as the presentation layer for Business Intelligence visualizations.
Dynamics CRM is pretty self-evident as Microsoft’s answer for customer relationship management.  Data on sales opportunities and marketing campaigns, originating here, can be threaded into the newsfeed and exposed to many people who can add value.
LOB Apps is a catch-all phrase for applications hosting and utilizing line of business (“LOB”) data.  This might be the SAP family in manufacturing, EHR systems like Epic and McKesson in the Healthcare space, or any of a host of other applications that organizations use to run their business.  This is typically the holy grail of enterprise social—once you can surface, discuss, and react to key business data in the newsfeed, you can make one decision and say that enterprise social paid for itself.
The Social Layer, then, is the set of services underpinning and interconnecting all of these systems.  It makes good sense from a vision perspective, and I can see plenty of organizations incorporating some version of this in time.  I’m excited to be part of a team that is helping many of them get there.

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Rich Wood

Rich Wood has been planning, designing and building enterprise solutions and internet sites with an emphasis on stellar user and customer experiences since 1997. Rich is a National Director for Content and Commerce Platform work in Perficient Digital. One of the rare breed of strategists to truly understand both the business needs of the customer and the platforms that serve them, he is a keen advocate for and accomplished speaker/writer on issues that surround that inflection point. His work has been published on CMSWire, Sitecore and Microsoft partner blogs, and his own LinkedIn page as well as our various blogs here at Perficient, and he has spoken at multiple major conferences including Microsoft's SharePoint Conference 2014. Married and a father of five, Rich enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He is a native of South Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a graduate of Marquette University.

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