No matter how much Microsoft talks about development "at the speed of the cloud," there will be announcements and product releases that it holds back from the public eye for a time, to unveil later at a large industry event — such as what we saw with BUILD and Ignite 2015. To its credit, Microsoft is doing a much better job of information dissemination than years past. 

As the company becomes more settled within its cloud-first, mobile-first release schedule, the fact is that most organizations are still trying to keep up with all of the news and changes happening within the Office 365 space, especially around the topic of social collaboration. For a company that was once accused of moving too slow, the more common complaint now is that Microsoft is moving too fast into the cloud.

While I'd like to think that this new delivery schedule will normalize, one area where Microsoft could use a continuous stream of community feedback is around its messaging. Today's Microsoft communications and community outreach is a million times better than a few years back. In many ways the SharePoint and Office 365 communities came together and are so strong because of Microsoft's documentation and communication gaps. But a large part of this responsiveness is because we, as a community, are being more vocal.  

One of the areas driving the most interest in Microsoft's Office 365 is social collaboration. And, in my opinion, the messaging has not yet come together on this topic. Which is not to say that Microsoft is remaining silent on social — quite the contrary. But volume of words does not equal clarity of message. 

When Microsoft launched SharePoint 2013 a few years back, it invested heavily in building a native social experience that integrated with the enterprise content management and team collaboration capabilities, the bread-and-butter that made SharePoint successful. The features were previewed with great anticipation. And then the Yammer buy happened, and the quality of communication around Microsoft's social vision took a nosedive.

Quelling the Rumors

I'm not knocking Yammer. Yammer is part of my standard day, and is a fantastic resource for team and community collaboration. But post-acquisition, Yammer has suffered from a messaging problem. At one point, there were rumors that SharePoint would go away, to be replaced by Yammer with an expanded document management story. We don't know whether or not that was ever truly considered — but I'm confident that path would have led to failure within the very successful enterprise segment.

There was another Yammer rumor floating around pre-Ignite, which stated that the new Office 365 Groups capability would replace Yammer, and that Yammer was going away. While this rumor is false, the product team at Microsoft should recognize that there is some confusion around the use of Yammer versus Office 365 Groups -- confusion that cannot be masked by simply providing a spreadsheet (or an Ignite session) illustrating which tool to use when. 

If there is confusion in the marketplace, the strategy should be clearly stated. If confusion persists, the answer is not to keep repeating yourself (such as saying “Just use Yammer” over and over again), but to identify the gaps in understanding and clarify your messaging. People need to understand the broader strategy of Yammer and Office 365 Groups, and how Microsoft views these disparate technologies blending together — architecturally, as well as within key business scenarios.

Yammer continues to play an important part in Microsoft's overall strategy, but people will read into what is said — and not said — about Yammer's future. Which is why Microsoft needs to be more clear in its messaging about what is happening across the Office 365 platform, and how Yammer fits into the long-term social collaboration strategy of Office 365 alongside Groups, Office Graph, and the various NextGen portals being delivered in the near future.

Microsoft has not remained silent. Office 365 Product Manager, Christophe Fiessinger (@cfiessinger) and Group Manager, Amit Gupta (@amtgu) gave an excellent overview and roadmap of Office 365 Groups at Ignite (which you can see on Channel 9). 

However the Yammer roadmap presentation by Juliet Wei, senior product marketing manager at Yammer and Gadi Ben Zvi, director of product management at Yammer (available here) unfortunately helped propagate the rumors during Ignite, rather than answer them. Although Wei had written an Office Blog post on the evolution of Yammer leading up to the event and promising more details at Ignite, many attendees voiced frustration that additional details were not provided in a format that explained how Yammer would coincide with other Office 365 investments.

Enterprise Social Without the Cloud

Microsoft has communicated that Yammer will continue to be available in the future. But Yammer is also listed as one of the core “services” being integrated into the Office 365 Groups architecture, as well as into the NextGen knowledge management portal concept, code named InfoPedia and announced at Ignite. How this will work, how much of the Yammer user experience (UX) will come across to these other experiences, or what new methods for consuming Yammer conversations, is not yet known… and Microsoft admits that it is still making decisions about these future experiences.

Whether or not Yammer becomes a foundational component of Office 365 and not just a tab at the top of a browser experience is yet to be seen. But enterprise customers have stated again and again that they want a social collaboration experience that is part of their document and team collaboration platforms, not a separate online destination linked through individually configured embed feeds.

An example of how a large organization successfully deployed social collaboration outside of the Yammer framework is Vodafone. During Ignite, Metalogix named Vodafone the Best Social Collaboration Solution for its use of SharePoint and Beezy to deliver its "Circle" social experience.

According to Vodafone's Internal Digital Experience Manager, Stanley Awuku (@Stanos22), “At the beginning it was a hard sell to get employees to embrace the new behaviors from how they were communicating before, which was mainly email and instant messaging such as Lync. But over time they seemed to like the benefits of being able to reach the masses using one place and getting feedback from people at the same time. The fact that we could remove some of those communication barriers was a good upwards selling point.”

In an article on Simply-Communicate.com, author Marc Wright outlines Circle's success. With over 76,000 registered users on Circle and thousands joining every month, the platform is raising the level of engagement across the company, with communities forming around topics and work teams, all integrated into their on-premises SharePoint platform rather than connected loosely to a separate, cloud-based platform.

According to Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao, the company was "looking for a way to improve our existing online collaboration tools with enterprise social networking" that did not fit within the Yammer framework. It needed a solution that fit within its SharePoint culture, and better aligned with its clearly articulated social use cases. Vodafone decided to build out the capability within SharePoint. Colao continued, "At this moment every Vodafone employee, no matter who they are or where they work around the globe, has an integrated social workplace to connect, find, collaborate and share in a simple and seamless way."

Exploring Core Scenarios

Most enterprise social success stories share the integrated social experience theme. While Microsoft focuses on building out NextGen portals and "experiences" that span multiple workloads across Office 365, many customers want to integrate social with the SharePoint investments they've already made — meaning SharePoint 2010 and SharePoint 2013 on-premises. For some of these businesses, the cloud is not yet mainstream, so even with Microsoft's increased focus on hybrid solutions in the upcoming SharePoint 2016 release, until these options are generally available and thoroughly tested, their focus will remain on premises.

What do customers really want or need in a social collaboration solution? Clearly, some of what customers want and need are a great fit for the Yammer platform, some fit within the future roadmap of Office 365 Groups, and others require the modality of native social features within SharePoint 2013 or third-party solutions. But the right place to begin as you plan your next steps is not with the technology, but with the business needs you are trying to fill.

Some common scenarios might include:

  • Social for community-building, whether inside or outside of the firewall. Examples might be a Center of Excellence (CoE) around project management for your organization, an employee on-boarding hub, or a community portal for sharing ideas and experience on a specific topic across a variety of employees, customers and partners
  • Social for team-cohesion, based around specific deliverables of product areas. This might also reach beyond the firewall and include external partners and vendors, such as a new product introduction (NPI), or a group for organizing your Day of Service activities to help your community
  • Social to add context to content, which could apply to the other scenarios. For example, social conversations around specific documents or team sites, acting as folksonomy (end user-generated metadata) that is applied to any content shared within the conversation or site, thus improving the overall search experience
  • Social for knowledge capture, helping employees to capture their institutional knowledge. Capturing knowledge from individuals and teams can be difficult, so examples might be a social site to share video interviews and other rich media, building a library of experience from inside and outside your organization
  • Social for expertise definition, which is an important aspect of social collaboration — the ability to personalize. Examples might include expanded profile sections, regular activities and surveys that add stories and recorded life experiences to employee profiles, helping humanize but also uncover knowledge and experience outside of current job descriptions
  • Social for, well, socializing, because it's not always about projects and customers. Add some fun and personality to your environment, possibly some gamification strategies to make your environment more "sticky," and the level of engagement and adoption will increase

No single platform or framework will ever meet all customer scenarios. Rather than forcing the square peg through the round hole, start your social collaboration planning by understand the key business (and cultural) scenarios you're trying to provide. Once documented and prioritized, you'll be better prepared to find the right technologies to solve those business needs.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  moonlightbulb 

Title image by moonlightbulb