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Once upon a time we all worked in cubicles, separated from colleagues and very much siloed. These days many of us are lucky enough to work in more funky, open plan spaces. Some of us even have bean bags. Barriers have been broken down, collaboration and communication is more important, and physical silos have been reduced.

This parallels -- in much the same way -- how enterprise IT has changed from individual, isolated, desktops to the connected and collaborative cloud. Devices are linked, more and more applications talk to each other, and we are encouraged to use digital tools to work more closely together.

When Microsoft released Office 365 in 2011, it had many of the above stated goals. Not only did it want to foster better digital working, but it wanted to pull teams and workers closer together. 

Much of this has come to pass. You can now write documents online in Word, churn data through PowerBI, and share information with colleagues via Office 365 Groups. The purchase of Yammer put a social twist on everything, and tools like Delve are now trying to guess what we want to do before we do it.

In short, Office 365 wanted to make work ever more collaborative, social and interactive.

Not a Bad Start

And it worked... kind of. Office 365 today is a powerful suite of increasingly capable apps and features. Rivals have struggled to offer anything that offers quite the same breadth of functionality, though many would argue that they improve on specific areas (Microsoft took much the same approach with SharePoint, which was often seen as a "kitchen sink" of a product).

Yet there are areas that could be improved. Many organizations are still concerned about the security of the cloud and despite Microsoft's assurances, the desire to know how secure sensitive company data is held remains a major issue for many businesses. This isn't a problem unique to Office 365, but it is a consideration for potential customers.

Organizations that still rely on in-house and on premises systems have also met Microsoft's concerted drive over the last 12 months or so towards "cloud only" solutions with a somewhat muted response. It seems Microsoft will address these concerns with more hybrid friendly features, that will be announced as part of SharePoint 2016 at the Ignite Conference.

Finally, the Office 365 experience can still feel a bit disjointed. As you navigate between the numerous apps you can get the distinct feeling you're working in many different and loosely connected environments. It just doesn't feel quite smooth enough. Office 365 Groups and the continued integration of Yammer will help, but there is work to be done.

In order for the platform to build on its current success, let's look at three features we think Office 365 has to serve up in 2016. If we are close, we might see some hints at Microsoft Ignite. If not, we will just have to cross our fingers that someone from Microsoft reads this.

1. Delve 2.0: Microsoft Grasp

When Microsoft introduced Delve, it was met with a lot of excitement. Office 365's personal secretary got to know you by noticing whose posts, reports and work you follow and brought in notifications from your groups, emails and calendars to display this on your home screen when you login. We think machine learning will become an ever more important part of the Office 365 experience and will work harder to bring about the push for collaboration mentioned earlier.

To get an idea of what this will look like, we're going to enlist the help of a fictional worker of the future, Faye Keperson. Faye is a project manager and works in a public sector organization. She oversees a number of projects and a lot of her day-to-day activity involves attending meetings with stakeholders, measuring progress and ensuring accountability.

When we first began using Office 365 in 2013, it was a big move for the organization and a massive shift up from SharePoint 2010, where we'd been before. It took a while to get used to but after about six months everyone had worked out how to use it."

The move to Office 365 wasn't too traumatic for Faye's day-to-day work. She was already used to MS Project, but decided to begin using Project Online and the transition was fairly seamless for her. The drawbacks?

Everything was fine really, my only issue was that, well, it didn't do a huge amount more than Office 2010, which we'd previously been using."

However, come early 2016, Faye began to notice the improvements brought about by machine learning. Delve had become indispensable as a means of keeping up to date on different project groups and monitoring how work was progressing. The game changer for her, however, was the newly released Grasp product -- a mashup of Cortana and Delve.

What's great about Grasp is that it basically works like a PA. When I go to one of our meeting rooms, I turn on Grasp on my phone and it records our conversations. When we agree on an action, I simply tell Grasp to note it down as such. It then uses its language recognition tools to turn our discussion into a set of meeting minutes with actions included for different individuals. But that's not all it does, Grasp also adds these actions or tasks into the project's Group on Office 365 and speaks with Delve to let individuals know they've got certain actions to complete."

2. A Visual Workflow Tool that Can Talk to Any System

One of the great things about Office 365 is that it does so much: email, document management, business intelligence and more. But whilst even the most Microsoft-focused organization might be loathe to admit it, there is a world outside of Redmond.

Faye explains:

We use Office 365 for a lot of what we do. But we do have accounts with a few other document file sharing tools, used by smaller teams and some suppliers. We also use a non-Microsoft CRM system, and another Cloud tool for email newsletters and marketing. What we really want to do is stitch them together."

Many of you will immediately be thinking Nintex Workflow, and that is the right idea. But think bigger -- the opportunity is huge. Imagine a feature of Office 365 where, using a drag and drop visual tool, you could piece together custom workflows or processes that can pull in (and push out) data on other third party systems. Imagine a power user tool that could access APIs and allow them to interface with the core components inside Office 365.

For example:

  • An email comes into Exchange, and Office 365 automatically understands the contents of the message and who it is intended for.
  • The content is posted to a SharePoint site, along with relevant information pulled externally from a CRM system, LinkedIn and Twitter.
  • The owner of the site then gets a message on Lync, Slack or WhatsApp alerting them to the news
  • They access the site, inspect the information and update the metadata to a new status
  • This data is then pushed to a bespoke line of business tool for further processing

Over to Faye, still in the future, for a review:

The drag and drop nature of the tool means almost anyone can use it, and build up really quite complex processes. The ability to talk to systems outside of Office 365 is amazing. Finally Office 365 really is the hub of our enterprise tools, without us having to abandon other systems that work for us."

3. HoloLens Support

OK, this one is left field, but if Microsoft is serious about HoloLens, why can't we use it in the workplace?

We are going to let Faye have the final word here:

Putting on HoloLens at first was a bit weird, I admit. I'd seen the videos online, but was never sure how it would work. But if you think of it as a means to put Office 365 data in context of the real world you are on the right lines.

I use it very simply. I have lots of meeting with stakeholders and third parties. Many of those meetings are done virtually online. I use HoloLens to hold ‘virtual conferences' where I can see the other people in our virtual meeting room. So far, so obvious right? But Office 365 then kicks in to make things so much more productive.

We all work collaboratively on a Word document during the meeting. That document is projected on a board in front of us. Using my physical keyboard and the HoloLens it is actually really easy to type during the meeting. Everyone chips in and the final document is much more useful that if it was confined to my own desktop computer. Having the ability for everyone to see it (and everyone see that others see it) means we all go away with the same view on the matters we have discussed.

Assigning tasks, distributing documents, setting up calendar appointments during the meeting is super easy with HoloLens. I can literally flick a document over to someone in 3D and it is synced in real time to their OneDrive. Creating a task, via Delve, Cortana and Grasp is simply a case of using some gestures and pointing at people I want to assign it to. Easy.

Meetings with HoloLens and Office 365 might sound futuristic, but the tools actually just let me do what I used to -- sit in a room with people and interact naturally with them. It's just now I can do it with colleagues all over the world and much more effectively. I'd say the future is here now!"

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  NeilGHamilton