Even within Microsoft that strategy is a work in progress, and the process by which the SharePoint team is building continues to evolve. As you look back across the many statements made by Microsoft product leadership, and especially comments made by Yammer co-founder and CTO Adam Pisoni within several keynote presentations and the Yammer Working Social Tour, Microsoft is learning every day about how people use the platform, and adjusting its strategy as it learn. It’s a fundamental shift in how the company has developed and released software in the past, and it’s having an impact inside and outside of the company.

Social is a Cloud Strategy

Without doubt Microsoft’s social strategy was one of the major points of interest at the SharePoint Conference in Las Vegas earlier this month. Social is rapidly becoming not just an add on to our existing platforms, but integral to how those platforms operate. While the product team had made it clear (they thought) that the Yammer platform would always be -- and only be -- a cloud experience, an undercurrent of conversation and questions has continued to surround the need for social for on premises customers, many of whom have not yet started planning a move to the cloud.

Microsoft continues to innovate in the social space, but it's making it loud and clear that its primary focus is on the cloud as a delivery mechanism. Following the keynote presentations, Microsoft enterprise social product manager, Christophe Fiessinger (@cfiessinger) provided a session on the social roadmap where he stated, quite definitively, that Microsoft would not be making any new investments in SharePoint on premises social features (which became my most re-tweeted comment during the conference):

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This does not mean that the company will not continue to provide innovations to the integration points between Yammer, SharePoint Online and SharePoint on premises. In fact, some of the more exciting examples shown were related to hybrid deployments that utilize both SharePoint on premises and Yammer. Fiessinger stated a few times that Microsoft “is committed to improving the hybrid experience.” What he tried to make clear was that Microsoft would no longer be investing in “native” social features for on premises environments, which leaves the door wide open to ISV and consulting partners to provide solutions for customers.

Looking at the Trees

A good portion of the social sessions at the event walked through details of the latest social features within SharePoint (online) and Yammer, as well as those which will soon work across the entire Office365 platform. From my perspective, the more interesting advances included:

  • The “in-line social” experience, which will provide “social building blocks” that work much like a SharePoint web part. These can be dropped into line of business (LOB) systems, allowing customers to integrate Yammer-like interactions into their customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), ticketing systems and other packaged or home-built systems, allowing organizations to further customize their end user experiences while keeping people tied into a unified newsfeed. This will allow people to be social and part of the broader, company-wide dialog, but from within the security of the app or system with which they are most comfortable.
  • Item-level conversations, which looked much like the Yammer experience provided through last year’s Chrome browser extension (which has not yet been added to IE or other browsers. My understanding is that it is not on the roadmap to date to do so). Within the Chrome Yammer extension, there is a tab (with a Y) on the right side of your screen that allows you, as you browse the internet and find relevant content, to quickly open up a Yammer side window and comment on your page without leaving that page. Or, if you are browsing a site which others on your team have already discussed on Yammer, the tab will change to a number, highlighting the number of posts within the conversation, and allowing you to open the tab and add to the conversation. Similarly, the new item-level conversation that Microsoft introduced allows users to have this type of user experience around content within Office 365.

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  • Extended Groups capability. This was also highlighted within the keynote presentations on Monday, but the social team provided an extended demo for the social audience. Essentially, your Groups will be integrated across the Office 365 environment, allowing you to interact with them via Yammer, Exchange, SharePoint and Lync. The experience and functionality will change based on the tool through which you are accessing the Group, but the idea is to make it easier to collaborate with your Groups no matter which tool you are using. This provides the ability to see a Group’s calendar in a blended view with your personal calendar, and then hand-select which Group activities to add to your personal calendar.
  • Office Graph. The idea here is like the concept of social graphing -- to open up search and search-enabled features to all of your content, your conversations, and your interactions, whether they be real-time interactions through Yammer or machine learning captured through your Office app interactions. As part of the Office Graph discussion, Fiessinger and team also shared a preview of a new user experience code named Oslo which utilizes the Office Graph to provide a personalized, live tile-meets-FlipBoard experience that allows users to see content, conversations, and other metrics that are relevant to them in a dynamic presentation.
  • New social listening capability, demonstrated through deeper analytics provided to the Dynamics CRM platform. This is a large and necessary step to move Microsoft forward in the social CRM category, which is where the industry -- and several competitors -- are heading.
  • Simplified link sharing replacing attachments. Within Exchange and Yammer, this capability automates the process of converting documents you want to share into links, providing a hyperlink rather than an attachment. This allows you to maintain permissions and document-level security through SharePoint Online, continuing the social interaction without concern of clogging your network with documents, always wondering where the master document lives.

While not every topic was addressed -- there remain some serious questions and concerns around governance and administration, as well as how to manage the on premises social features within a hybrid solution that conflict with what is happening in the cloud -- the openness of the product team to discuss these gaps was refreshing.

While it’s exciting to see many of the advances that Microsoft is making in social, with some truly innovative capability and user experiences, there remains a fairly large gap for organizations who have no plans to move to the cloud – or even for organizations who are building out hybrid SharePoint platforms who also want to take advantage of the latest in social capabilities. To this point, Microsoft actually made progress at this year’s event in being open and honest about their roadmap and planning cycle, sharing that they did not yet have answers for all features -- but that they seek customer and community feedback, to be paired with the daily analytics they pull from their online solutions, to learn about how people actually use the tools and then refine the strategy as they move forward.

Stepping Back to Look at the Forest

Much of the community push back on the SharePoint strategy is understandable -- people are trying to understand how the future direction of the platform and all of these features fit within the perspective of previous SharePoint deployments. The short answer is: they don’t. While the underlying architecture of SharePoint may still be intact, the way we think about the platform is fundamentally changing. There are some within the community who talk about SharePoint fading away, and Yammer becoming the primary interface through which we work. That’s not what I see happening.

It is true that SharePoint is stepping back from the limelight a bit to share the stage with the entire Office365 platform, including Exchange Online, Lync, Yammer and even OneDrive for Business. However, my prediction is that SharePoint services will continue to be the primary story behind your records management and document collaboration use cases -- but your movement between these products will become more streamlined and fluid.

Whether you share a document link via email, or through an instant message, or within a social conversation -- that content will reside within SharePoint, with all of its security trimming, business process management and workflow rules, and other governance policies and procedures in place. Though you just may not see the word “SharePoint” anywhere on your screen, SharePoint will continue to be a critical piece of the social fabric story for Microsoft for years to come.

Title image by Andreas Zerndl (Shutterstock)