Our workday world has changed dramatically with the advent of always on internet access and the explosion of mobile devices in the enterprise. Employees are no longer tethered to their desks in office buildings but are in the field working face to face with clients and customers. Microsoft’s vision for the future of work is made up of the Cloud OS (Office 365) and the mobile devices you use every day to get work done. The intersection between the two is the digital workplace.
The Office 365 platform enables this Digital Workplace by giving employees access to corporate content and data on any device from any location.
Office 365 Components
Microsoft continues to update Office 365 to enhance the collaboration capabilities and extend the reach of the platform to mobile devices. The platform offers several ways to engage with coworkers or collaborate on documents with the key element to the entire suite being the tight integration with the Office platform. The Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint experiences are the base elements of the corporate content creation, editing and curation experience across the platform. The tight integration with Office 365 extends the capabilities of the Office platform and enables digital workers to collaborate from anywhere.
Let’s explore the various tools that Office 365 provides and how they can be used to drive the Digital Workplace
Microsoft Exchange has been around for many years and is still the primary collaboration tool used by many corporations. Recently Microsoft has been updating the end user experience and capabilities to integrate some of the other Office 365 tools like Yammer and SharePoint. Organizations have been using Exchange in the cloud for some time. From a cost perspective it makes a lot sense for organizations that have struggled to maintain an on-premises version.
Exchange and Outlook are primarily used to collaborate with external parties through a recognizable email domain. Microsoft has streamlined the Outlook user experience and has made the look and feel similar across devices and operating systems. The desktop version looks and functions like the online and mobile versions.
Microsoft has recently released the OWA for Mobile app (IOS and Android) that runs on all mobile OS environments. The IOS and Android experience is very good and is similar to the Windows Phone experience in form and function.
Most organizations use some form of internal chat to augment the communication and collaboration process. Microsoft released Lync’s predecessor, the Office Live Communication Server in 2003. The concept of internal unified communications came from the difficulties organizations were having placing controls over sensitive information being shared over internet based chat applications like ICQ, AOL, Skype and Windows Live Messenger. Enterprise chat applications have evolved into complete unified communications platforms that allow users to chat one to one, one to many, start video conferencing, and present online to a large internal or external group.
Microsoft purchased Skype in 2011 and has been working to incorporate the video capabilities into Lync. It recently announced the merger of the two teams and the creation of the Skype for Business solution which will replace Lync next year. Both Skype and Lync have been available on mobile devices for some time. With the release of Lync for IOS and Android users can now start a session from their tablet, phone or laptop to communicate via text, video or voice to present information online. The presence capability is a big benefit to using Lync. Lync integrates with Exchange and shows if colleagues are online, in a meeting or out of the office. This feature is also available on the Office platform and in SharePoint.
With Lync you can:
- See when people are available, away from their desk, or in a meeting
- Send an instant message
- Set up a Lync Meeting
- Share your desktop or a program in a Lync Meeting
- Make and receive audio and video calls
Lync also allows for external connections when configured for external access. This means you could have the same chat/video/presentation experience with trusted partners or customers.
The evolution of SharePoint online has been a much discussed topic these days. Although all of the On-prem features can be found in SharePoint Online, there is a divergence of feature sets between the versions. While Microsoft is promising one more on-prem version (or two -- depending on who you talk to), there are capabilities in Office 365 that will not translate (like Delve and Office Graph) and there are still some capability deficiencies between the Online and On-Prem versions for areas like Managed Metadata and Workflow. The on-prem version still allows for deeper customizations in the SharePoint environment but these gaps are closing as Microsoft works with partners and vendors to enhance the customization capabilities in the cloud.
SharePoint Online has some very compelling features and integration with other Office 365 tools.
The integration with Yammer through the Yammer App offers some interesting capabilities. By using the Yammer feed as the primary channel for team communication, the site transforms from a document centric site to a people/team centric site. Yammer can be downloaded to any mobile device and the Yammer group attached to the SharePoint site can be accessed while the user is away from a browser to allow for continued communication with the team. More on this integration below.
The Office platform is tightly integrated into SharePoint Online with the user’s ability to edit documents using the online, desktop or mobile version of the Office component. This applies to Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
SharePoint online also tightly integrates with OneNote -- one of the best kept secrets. This feature allows multiple users to edit Notes at the same time. This co-editing capability also exists in Word online, but is the key element of OneNote online that really drives the collaborative nature of the platform.
Remote access to SharePoint sites via a browser from Office 365 is a huge leap in capability for corporate users who have struggled to access SharePoint sites behind the company firewall. The requirement of a VPN client to access on-premises SharePoint has stifled collaboration capabilities when most documents need to be accessed outside the office from remote locations.
Email integration with SharePoint Online is accomplished through a Site Mailbox. The Site Mailbox is a repository for emails associated with the site. For example, the SharePoint site may be used to manage project related content and the Site Mailbox can be the holding area for any project related emails. Users can send emails directly to the site mailbox or can drag and drop emails from their inbox to the Site Mailbox. This can be a very powerful tool for e-discovery or project management when combined with the collaboration capabilities of the SharePoint platform.
Microsoft built in a sharing capability (also available in SharePoint 2013 on-prem) that allows users to share a site with external users. It is no longer necessary for user to copy files to an extranet in the corporate DMZ to enable the sharing of documents and content with external parties.
SharePoint Online will continue to evolve as Microsoft builds tighter integration across the Office 365 stack.
Microsoft has stated that “Yammer will become the core of Microsoft's social fabric”. Yammer is now tightly integrated into SharePoint Online, Exchange Online and the Office Online tools allowing you to start a Yammer conversation from almost anywhere in the Office 365 suite. The path to social collaboration success is ensuring that social is part of the end user’s business process and Microsoft has taken this approach in its plans to weave Yammer into the Office 365 fabric.
Microsoft released the Yammer App for SharePoint as the first step in building the integration of social into the collaboration platform. Adding a Yammer group feed to a SharePoint site is a great way to integrate the two platforms. Users can add a document to an existing Yammer group or create a new one and invite users to collaborate on the document right from the SharePoint interface.
Microsoft also allows users to start a conversation in Yammer from a document stored in a SharePoint Online document library. This feature is not widely known and is a great way to engage team members in focusing on a specific document or topic related to the document. Users can edit the document in the Yammer Group and comment on the content until it is ready for publication and global sharing. Highlighting the ellipsis (three dots) allows you to view the document and choose what you want to do with it. Click on the POST link to post the document to Yammer.
This feature can greatly streamline the cross-team, intra-team and cross-company collaboration process.
Microsoft is also working to let Yammer users invite people from outside of their organization and network to internal Yammer groups. Currently, Yammer users have to create specific external networks in order to interact with outside parties. Microsoft promises even deeper integration with Office 365 with Yammer integration enhancements coming to Exchange Online. You’ll see a broader push to use Yammer as the primary social collaboration component going forward.
OneDrive for Business is the new name for the Document Storage and Sharing application Microsoft has built into the Office 365 platform. The concept is similar to Box or other file sharing solutions but is tightly integrated into the Office 365 and Microsoft Office suite of tools. Users can synchronize documents with OneDrive for Business that will allow for editing on multiple devices. For example, if I were writing a document for a project I was working on I’d set the document to save to OneDrive Business and I could open the document in Word on my desktop, Surface Pro, or Android phone and seamlessly edit the document on any of the devices. The synchronization process would save the document periodically to the cloud.
There are two distinct versions of OneDrive which can be confusing. Microsoft offers another storage service called OneDrive. You may already be using OneDrive (formerly called SkyDrive) to store personal documents, photos and other content in the cloud. This service differs from OneDrive for Business in that:
- OneDrive is the free online personal storage that you receive with either a Microsoft Live or Outlook.com account.
- OneDrive for Business is online storage intended for business purposes and offers integration into Office 365. Your organization manages OneDrive for Business and lets you share and collaborate on work documents with co-workers. SharePoint Site collection administrators in your organization control what you can do with OneDrive for Business.
One of the key areas of confusion users have is the when to use SharePoint and when to use OneDrive for Business. Microsoft provides a great explanation in this article.
Office Delve is a new component in Office 365. With it users can find relevant information for their work, their connections, and their interactions in Exchange and who they follow. Delve promises to become more useful the more you and your coworkers engage. The OfficeGraph engine learns your patterns and from how you and your colleagues work and tailors information to each individual.
What Does the Future Hold?
Microsoft has been building a comprehensive cloud strategy that spans the various Office 365 collaboration tools that allow users to engage and access content from any device, anywhere, anytime. Microsoft will continue to integrate the collaboration, social, content curation, and access capabilities across the Office 365 platform and will continue to release new features at a steady pace. These key concepts enable the Digital Workplace but as with any technology, it is up to the organizations using the tools to formulate a strategy to implement the capabilities of the Office 365 platform that best suits their needs now and for the future.