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Productivity has been a recurring theme in the first two days of Microsoft's Ignite conference in Chicago. CEO Satya Nadella started the beat and other Microsoft executives, including Julia White, general manager for the Office marketing team, quickly followed.

Microsoft wants to use Office as a tool to reinvent productivity for people and organizations, White told the crowd yesterday. To find out more, we sat down with her to discuss Microsoft's plans for its productivity apps.

Intelligent Team Productivity

A lot of what Microsoft is doing across Office is about productivity, "but it’s much wider than that," White said. "The best way to describe what we are developing is Intelligent Team productivity."

In practical terms, this means the development of team work and team collaboration abilities — objectives White concedes Microsoft has yet to reach. 

"We know as a company that we haven’t nailed team collaboration, even if we have great tools and great products," she said, adding, "no one has really nailed it." 

She argued that successful organizations have moved from static hierarchies of people to dynamic networks of open sharing — and have evolved from individual productivity to collective value co-creation. This is where the drive to intelligent team productivity comes from, she said, and Microsoft is in a strong position to capitalize on existing products:

We have this great foundation in SharePoint which was probably the best run at it [team collaboration] in a commercial sense. We have Skype. We have email. We have all the pieces. We know that people want to work on their tools of choice."

Team Ambience

White said Microsoft's goal is to "provide the missing ambient awareness across the team." She explained:

I can find content, I can find information, I know who’s there but I don’t have this ambient awareness of what is going on with my team at a given time. Cracking this nut is what you are going to see us pursue for the next several years. 

The other big thing — if I could pick a second thing — is the intelligence experiences. Office Graph is central here and we are just at the beginning of that. Delve is interesting and we will keep expanding what it can do, but of all the things if I was to pick one thing that had a core function in people productivity experience it would be about how efficient they are about is that whole intelligence thing."

White said that whatever finally emerges has to bring people together to solve business problems. It also   must be simple, lightweight, user-managed. "We showed a preview of the Office 365 Groups “hub” in Office Delve and group conversation in Outlook 2016, and this is just the beginning," she said.

So if SharePoint was the first commercial platform that really aimed to solve the issues around team collaboration, what role will it have in the future? "SharePoint on-premises is going to be with us for a very long time. That’s the reality. That’s why we are investing so deeply in hybrid," she said — and not just for SharePoint.

About seven years ago we launched on BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) the precursor to Office 365 and even at that time we were thinking it has to work with our servers, as people are going to be running both the online and the on-premises apps. It was more about a gradual start rather than jumping in as a pure cloud player."

The same is going to happen with other Microsoft apps. With SharePoint 2016, Exchange 2016 and Skype for Business Server, users are going to want to work with them in both on-premises and cloud environments at the same time.

A year from now, White said Microsoft will have succeed in bridging the team collaboration problem and that Office 2016 will be viewed as much as a collaboration suite as a productivity suite.