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Microsoft’s Roadmap for Social: Detailed Analysis from SPC14

“Work like a network.”  Spend just a few minutes at SharePoint Conference 2014 and you’re bound to hear or see this phrase sooner than later. It’s here in the keynote and it’s here in the signage.  It’s here on the lips of the Yammer and Social product marketing people I had the good fortune to spend some time with early Monday afternoon, and it was here loud and clear in the jam-packed session on Microsoft’s Roadmap for Enterprise Social later that same day.  It’s central to the short-term improvements that answer questions about Yammer and SharePoint, and even more central to new investments that Microsoft calls Inline Social, Groups and Office Graph—already the darling of Day One.
Microsoft’s Roadmap for Social: Detailed Analysis from SPC14What does it mean?  It means leveraging the power of enterprise social tools to actually behave in connected ways, and get value out of it.  The presenters, Christophe Fiessinger and Juliet Wei, made it very clear that while Microsoft still believes the best pure social experience is Yammer in the browser—they called it the “hero” version of social—that the future of work is social, and the future of social is in its ability to socially connect people within and around the documents, data and applications they care about.  Much of the message here was focused on enterprise tools better reflecting what is available to people in the consumer market—a message stressed here in this space just last month.
This was the core message of the Roadmap presented on Monday at SPC2014. While it’s an ambitious one, it must be said that Microsoft’s track record of hitting their enterprise social goals since the Yammer acquisition nearly two years ago has been a very solid one.  Though many questions have been asked, when they’ve said they will deliver something by a certain date, they’ve done it—and now they’re starting to answer those questions.
Some of those answers were addressed on Monday, along with three core innovation tracks that go beyond the SharePoint-heavy tone of those early concerns.  Those three tracks— “Inline Social”, “Groups”, and “Office Graph”—position Microsoft’s approach to Enterprise Social as something that includes SharePoint but extends well beyond it.
To analyze the Roadmap, then, let’s take a look at the short term items, the implications for the present—the questions people have been asking almost since the Yammer acquisition—and then take a look toward the far more interesting items promised, and in many cases demoed, for the near future.  That’s where the tools really begin to make “working like a network” look like an achievable dream.
What’s Coming Just Around the Corner…
One might as well call the short-term Roadmap items the SharePoint roadmap items.  It’s been a common fallacy for people in the SharePoint world (and beyond) to look at Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer as a simple one-for-one swap with the old SharePoint social features, but they’ve been clear for over a year now that this sort of view is limited and more than slightly reductionist.
Even so, the number of times that Christophe needed to repeat that there would be no further development of SharePoint’s native social features, and that Microsoft’s direction was to ‘Go Yammer!’—an old message by now—made it seem that many customers still have not absorbed the significance of that statement.  The simple truth is that Yammer is Microsoft’s direction for enterprise social, Yammer is and always has been cloud-based, and that enterprise social in on-premises SharePoint environments will not be able to take advantage of the advantages on offer from a cloud-based solution.
And there are advantages.  Mobile accessibility, single sign-on, easy provisioning (both set-up and take-down), access to newer features sooner—all of these things are core to the value of Yammer, and cannot be replicated on premise.
Of course, many of Microsoft’s largest customers remain on-premises customers in whole or in part, and they are hardly forgotten in the new Roadmap.  The recent release of Service Pack 1 included a Yammer app for SharePoint, embedding the Yammer feed in any on-premise SharePoint site as a simple configuration option.  Meanwhile, in the cloud, users licensed for both Yammer and Office 365 can log in once to both environments and experience a common user interface, featuring shared global navigation and a consistent look and feel.
Other short term Roadmap items included two key announcements:(1) Yammer Enterprise will be available in Academic and Mid-Market customer SKUs this spring, and (2) the Yammer back end is moving from third-party data centers to Microsoft’s own US data centers this year. Both of these items garnered applause from the packed ballroom.
Of course, much of the above was expected.  The truly interesting—even exciting—announcements came around three core areas of innovation.
…And Around The Next Bend
Microsoft’s three focal points for continued innovation in Enterprise Social touch on SharePoint, but it’s not the focus. No, these are truly Enterprise Social concepts (as opposed to purely SharePoint concepts) and are clear evidence of the pivot that Microsoft is making from a software company to a software services company. Inline Social, Groups and Office Graph all have two things in common:
(1) They’re all providing means of social collaboration that can only be delivered by Microsoft, due to its investment in both the Office suite and Yammer, and
(2) They’re all providing a social experience across applications and platforms, where SharePoint is still important but no more so than its siblings Lync, Exchange, Office and even Dynamics CRM.
Yes, you read that right—Dynamics CRM.  In fact, we learned of a new enterprise social feature available in Dynamics CRM today—Microsoft Social Listening—that pushes Microsoft firmly into the sentiment analysis game.  Social Listening can be pointed to external social, of course, but this product can also be turned on Yammer to provide valuable insights about your internal users’ social behavior.  This item was slipped quietly into the talk track and won’t get much fanfare, but for the corporate communications teams who often own internal social engagement initiatives this service is a gold mine and should not be ignored.
It’s unearthing hidden nuggets like these that truly makes SPC sessions worthwhile—and so do the live demonstrations of technology that’s just around the bend, like Inline Social, Groups and Office Graph.
Inline Social
The concept of “Inline Social” is core to the idea of working like a network—essentially, it’s extending the enterprise social model out of the “hero” version that is Yammer-in-a-browser and making it available everywhere people work. In this case, the demo focused on Office documents and image files, creating conversations in the context of the file itself (opened and even edited in the browser, naturally). This functionality was shown live and promised to customers for “this spring”; given that we’re already into March (and ignoring that much of the country is still mired in an interminably long winter) this means we should see it released by the end of June.
Enabling this sort of collaboration in and around files and other systems like email (more on that below) requires a common identity—and completion of common profiles and identities across Yammer and Office 365 was promised by summer.  This last has been a point of curiosity for many customers and one can suspect it comes as good news to all.
Lastly, the most tantalizing bit of information on offer around Inline Social was that of a commitment to providing Lync and Skype presence in Yammer.  No target date was provided for this particular feature, but since it’s been a common question and clearly a key component of people working like a network, the acknowledgement that Microsoft hears the questions and is working on it was reassuring at the very least.
Groups
Over the past eighteen months, one of the most common questions asked about SharePoint and Yammer coexistence has focused on Yammer Groups.  “What,” asked many familiar with and focused on SharePoint, “are we to do with Yammer Groups and SharePoint Community Sites”?  The two features seemed redundant, and reasonably so—both provided a place for file storage, collaboration and a social feed shared within a specific audience.  Microsoft’s answers long seemed evasive to many, and now we see why—the answer to the question of Groups and, really, team collaboration in general was a good deal larger than SharePoint alone.
The vision of Groups shown in extensive live demo form today incorporated SharePoint sites, sure—every Group includes a SharePoint site upon creation—but it extends beyond SharePoint or even Yammer.  Now Groups interact in Yammer, but the exact same groups with the exact same content can be managed just as effectively through Outlook Web App (i.e., Outlook mail in Office 365).
These new Groups essentially expand the idea of Public groups from Yammer throughout Office 365.  They appear in the Outlook interface in the left navigation, like folders or a second inbox in Outlook.  The user then navigates the group messages just like one does through such an email folder in Outlook.
Groups can be created in Outlook or Yammer, but whichever way you start, the group then exists and persists in both.  The act of creating the group—wherever it’s kicked off—also concurrently spins up an a SharePoint community site with group integration such as a Newsfeed (e.g., the newsfeed familiar to Yammer users) and a Calendar—essentially a social-powered version of Outlook Calendar.
This is all pretty powerful stuff, and the sort of thing only Microsoft—with their significant investment in Outlook and Exchange—can provide.  In all of this, most of the user experience is very familiar and should be easy for Microsoft’s millions of longtime users to adopt, with one potential exception.  The one feature in the set that may throw users off a bit is how Groups are managed in the Inbox.  Expanding a Group conversation in the Inbox, the exchange between users is best described as a “card” similar to the Windows 8 Messages or Yammer apps.   It remains a relatively new user experience for most people and the transition may be difficult for some.
The concept behind it is a good one—help people who work in email and people who work in Yammer to work together regardless of which method they prefer.  It does achieve that, but the “cards” could be a little jarring.
Conversely and finally, document collaboration in Groups has been simplified from a user’s perspective, and that’s unequivocally a good thing.  Attaching a document to a conversation—such docs can be stored in OneDrive or be attached as they might to an email—is accomplished through a simpler version of the ‘Share’ menu from Office 2013.  The many options of that older program would sometimes intimidate users, however, whereas in this case they have been pared down to only two.  The result is an easier and more streamlined way to share documents with others.

Office Graph

Easily the most buzz of Day One was generated during the keynote—not by former President Bill Clinton but by the unveiling of something called OfficeGraph and its first real product, codenamed “Oslo.”  What it does is use predictive analysis to feed your users internal content that will likely be of interest to them.
Oslo
The concept is fairly straightforward. Given that all user activity in Office 365 takes place in Microsoft’s cloud—on Microsoft servers.  The data from those servers is analyzed and crunched and used to churn out results that figure to be valuable to the users in the future.  It’s Big Data in action.  It’s the aggregation we predicted as social’s future in this space last summer.  In the words of the presenters, “It makes Office predictive,” which is really quite a feat.
Based on user behavior in Office 365—from social activity, browsing, email, and documents accessed, edited, and shared— OfficeGraph allows for an internal collaboration experience that’s not only personalized in the traditional sense, but predictive in a way that only the cloud can accomplish.  This is one more of those things that only Microsoft can do, again, because of (1) their investment in Office, its massive user base, and the terabytes of content they generate, (2) the analytics-driven development approach of Yammer and (3) the rich functionality and long reach of the cloud-based productivity suite that is Office 365.
The Final Analysis… for Day One, Anyway
All in all, if one came to SharePoint Conference looking for new product announcements, the Enterprise Social Roadmap was a session that didn’t disappoint.  We learned about the Yammer App for SharePoint from the recently-released Service Pack 1 and other short-term improvements.  We were clued into the future with a commitment to Lync and Skype integration, although that seems to be down the road a bit.  We even had a peek at Microsoft Social Listening in Dynamics CRM, which may prove to be the most valuable feature released by Microsoft this quarter despite a relative lack of fanfare.
More importantly, though, we had a really deep and detailed look at working demo versions of some very near-term improvements in three key areas: Inline Social, Groups, and Office Graph.  Judging by what we saw in this session, Microsoft’s taking “Working Like a Network” and making it happen a lot faster than people might have expected.  Based on their track record since the Yammer acquisition, we can expect Microsoft to deliver much of what we saw in this session throughout the rest of 2014.  One can only wonder where they’ll go next.
Author’s Note: Excerpts from this post will also appear on CMSWire.com.

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