The corporate communicators guide to what Microsoft’s new products can do for you

Scratching your head about how SharePoint versions, O365 online, the Cloud, OneDrive, Yammer and Delve fit together? Here's how they will change your digital workplace.


by Marc Wright

For years Microsoft seemed to be behind the curve in giving IC the tools it needs to reach and engage staff. For the internal communications function SharePoint was an unwieldy beast that was difficult to deploy, hard to use as a publisher or editor and very expensive to customise if you wanted to make it look half decent compared to the average external website.

As others innovated with the web and apps the Redmond giant seemed to be following the market and leaning on its dominance of the desktop to keep revenues strong. But as the desktop slipped to the smartphone and salesman CEO Steve Ballmer gave way to the software guru Satya Narayana Nadella (pictured), a seachange at Microsoft has started to be felt.

The acquisition of Yammer – a simple, cloud-based freemium social tool, marked the start of an embracing of social in the enterprise space. The $1.2 billion acquisition gave the monolithic Redmond giant two thing: access to an existing base of Yammer users and – crucially – exposure to the cloud and to agile working. For the enterprise here was a free tool that allowed groups to interact and work out loud – providing they all shared the same email domain. Yammer groups sprang up all over the place – many of them unofficial and out of the control of Corporate Communications functions and HR. This led to some bizarre anomalies. People who left a company would have to be deleted manually and under the free service this meant parcelling out the leavers among the team of communicators to zap off the network one by one.

I remember one Corporate Comms Director of a footsie 100 company complaining that Yammer were the equivalent of crack dealers who gave away social features to hook staff on the rogue network. But Yammer soon went legitimate and started promoting enterprise licences and appointing Customer Success Managers to help IC folk implement and develop their platforms. When Microsoft bought Yammer and started to bundle it with their enterprise licences the focus went from fighting social to embracing it and building adoption levels.

Research conducted by our own simply-communicate team shows that the average adoption rate of Yammer, where there is no launch campaign, tends to plateau at around the 16% level – once the early adopters have climbed on board.

It did not take long for Microsoft to absorb Yammer. The Customer Success Managers disappeared, and while some of the Yammer talent have found productive niches in the MS hierarchy, most left to pursue careers in start-ups and app companies.

Today Yammer sits uncomfortably inside the Microsoft stack. While many customers like its ease of use as a form of enterprise Facebook the powers that be don’t seem that keen on building its capabilities. Key among these are Groups – the killer app of any social platform. The truth is that Yammer Groups conflict with SharePoint Groups and as the whole Office 365 (O365) strategy unfolds it is becoming clear that Microsoft would prefer the social elements of any enterprise should be integrated around SharePoint.

An expert view from within

As Microsoft is so vast and its revenues so fulsome it is perhaps not surprising that few in the company can give a clear overview of the way forward; there are just too many powerful Divisions involved in the product routemap. So I turned to Anna Maslanka – a SharePoint consultant working for BrightStarr, the SharePoint development house. Previously, Maslanka worked for five years in Microsoft in Reading as a Premier Field Engineer focusing on SharePoint and O365 technologies.

BrightStarr is a Microsoft Gold Partner who specialise in building social intranets – more recently with their Unily product, which you can buy for a simple fee per user. They are a good example of a third party vendor that Microsoft depend on to scale and deploy SharePoint and other products in the enterprise space. And Corporate Communicators love companies like these as they can reduce the complexity and sheer length of time to get a decent intranet up and running.

“What is changing,” explains Maslanka, “is that tech has become an enabler rather than a blocker. IT could always slow things down, but with the new suite of products it’s all available to you now to start using. Instead of concentrating on tech there are tons of tools available to give corporate communicators a managed choice.

“Users are fed up coming home and seeing amazing sites and awesome apps in their consumer communications. Yet at work it’s restricted by enterprise tech. There is a real disappointment among users of why this can’t be better.

“Microsoft have appreciated this and are making it easier for organisations to embrace the digital workplace and the cloud.”

Many large companies still have a problem with the cloud – particularly with Yammer which is hosted on servers in the US. So for manybanks and regulated industries they prefer to keep their SharePoint platform firmly behind the firewall on premise.

“Microsoft needed to do something to respect an enable those businesses, and SP2016 is all about making it easier to embrace with good hybrid solutions where sensitive information remains in your private databases.

“Using these new hybrid solutions and online ‘Wizards’ to help you set up the features means that IT are finding it harder to say no to their colleagues in communications.”

Carrrots and sticks

The thrust of Microsoft’s intentions with O365 is to try and ensure that they keep control of the corporate desktop. PowerPoint, Excel and Word have dominated the enterprise workspace for years but that hegemony has been threatened by the move to mobile, where Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are outselling Windows Phones 10 to 1. It is crucial for Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella that his strategy wins back dominance in the online, cloud-based space for the future growth of his company. This means that Microsoft are using the carrot in terms of bundling products like Skype for Business and Yammer into enterprise licences. There is also the stick that some of its ageing products are no longer supported – forcing companies to upgrade from creaky old versions of Internet Explorer to their more social successors.

Maslanka explains what this means:

“They are simplifying the user experience with products like OneDrive for Business in the cloud, and removing the blockers by integrating more products. Products like O365 are designed from the point of view of the user rather the IT Department.

“We are still waiting to see what this will look like. As a user I don’t really care what application or platform I am using; I just want to get the job done. It’s all about the user experience in the portal; now I’m going to switch to SharePoint then Exchange to get a job done. Now I’m working on my own; now in a collaborative environment.”

Companies like BrightStarr can create easy to launch portals in a matter of weeks rather than months. This means that enterprises no longer have to build an intranet from the ground up but can leverage their knowledge from developing a wide variety of client SharePoint intranets into one out-of-the-box solution that has most of the features you will ever want to use in a software as a service (SaaS) package. You never have to worry up upgrades – they happen automatically as products and user behaviours evolve.

“This means you can stay on top of the tech curve and make sure you’re your extra investment goes where the little gap is you need to address the nature of your business, culture or market. We take the responsibility to customise the new advances using economies of scale.”

How all the parts of the Microsoft package add up

“OneDrive for Business is all around you as an individual in single work mode. It could be a report I’m working on, or possibly stuff I am doing in a small team. What’s good about OneDrive is that it is not device specific. I can start it on my laptop at work and then can continue on my iPad when I am on the go. As well as the convenience of multiple devices I can make sure there is no duplication and my data is always backed up.”

“Yammer Groups are for communications and collaboration; it’s the Facebook for business application. It has a simple user experience and provides the social tools we are all familiar with. Yammer enables a different way of communicating than email in an informal environment. It’s more interactive; a space where I can work out loud. It’s good for chatting and arranging a lunch or keeing in the loop if you are working from home.”

It is true to say that Yammer has been a bit oversold in recent years; it does not offer the full functionality of a social platform like Jive, for instance. Search in Yammer is patchy and the Groups conflict with the more powerful Groups you can set up in SharePoint team sites. Microsoft are loathe to admit it, but Yammer will probably become absorbed into a SharePoint social activity stream within O365. This is not to say that you should throw Yammer out; it is encouraging collaborative behaviours that will flourish once the Microsoft suite becomes totally integrated on desktop and mobile with O365.

“You should not see Yammer as a substitute for your intranet. It is only appropriate if you only want to focus on social and community conversations. You need to invest in intranets that have good document sharing, a proper content management system and a rich people directory. Yammer is not best suited for document management and on its own won’t be your digital workplace with links to your other digital tools.”

Maslanka wouldn’t discourage investment in Yammer: “Such investment will not be wasted as Microsoft will evolve it on a journey to however they integrate it. But SharePoint 2016 is the biggest focus is making sure you don’t stay behind – if it has to be on premise. Your hybrid scenarios are going to be easier than currently; you will be able to jump in and out of the firewall without being aware.

“Microsoft is aiming to make it easy to do with single sign-on and making the Wizards easier. You just authenticate once and effectively you are signed in.”

Skype for Business is replacing Lync with all the user-friendly features that you find in the consumer version plus some extra benefits like being able to fire up a Skype conversation straight out of Outlook. Machine translation is also coming which will be a huge benefit for any global enterprise. It will not be long before you could be talking to a colleague in Madrid and hearing a machine translation from their Spanish in real time.

Other products in the Microsoft routemap include Sway – one of the MS office suite that is a useful upgrade of that venerable application PowerPoint. Sway sits in the cloud and rather than being static with Sway you can integrate elements. For instance if you decide to link to a photo album then those pictures will still grow after you have published the deck. It is a more dynamic presentation system that is easy to use. And by using Office Mix (an add-on to SharePoint) You can record a voice over to some selected slides and send them to a colleague.

Introducing Delve and Office Graph

The most significant innovation by far in the Microsoft armoury is Delve – and the underlying technology Office Graph. This is a subject we have covered before at simply but with another technology giant: IBM’s social graph. Well it appears that Microsoft have one the same route and have developed a hugely powerful social analytics capability that is revolutionising the world of search. Basically it uses machine learning. This is the technology that looks at your behaviour online and forms a picture or ‘graph’ of how you behave. Machine learning, for instance, creates the algorithms that Facebook uses to send you ads about gyms because you mentioned that you were going on a diet in a comment on your wall.

Delve is Microsoft’s dashboard application that exploits the power of Office Graph and plugs in machine learning to your interactions and behaviours. It surfaces more personalised and discoverable content so that you can discover things happening in the enterprise that match your own needs and interests.

“You’ll discover things you didn’t know existed,” explains Maslanka. “It does not have to come from an hierarchical colleague as Delve is interest and issues led. It’s a very different way of finding content and cutting through the noise that invades your inbox. It’s like search on steroids.”

So what are the biggest challenges facing the corporate communicator as Microsoft opens this veritable chocolate box of new products and features?

“Don’t be scared of it. A lot of businesses feel that have to be fully in control of their applications and analyse everything. They want it all to be fully customised to their organisation. But if you do that you will always be behind the technology curve and will miss out on the competitive edge these tools can give you enterprise: tools that improve communication and efficiencies for users. The message is simple: embrace these new technologies.”