When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about "transforming collaboration," many customers automatically want to know "What's changing?" 

It's a natural response. For many organizations, SharePoint is not perfect — but it gets the job done. And with the regular addition of new capabilities to Office 365, many organizations are deciding to go all in or in part to the cloud.

Now that Microsoft has moved past the messaging mess of "move to the cloud NOW," and is embracing the idea of an ongoing transition that includes a strong hybrid component, customers want to see what Microsoft has in store for SharePoint 2016 and beyond. 

To get to the point: the number one problem with SharePoint is the user experience (UX). And that is where I expect to see more from Microsoft in the near-term.

Follow the Usage Trail

Whether consciously or unconsciously, end users will clearly show the business what direction the technology needs to go through their usage patterns. In other words, no matter what tools and systems you put in place, you need to pay attention to how your end users adopt (or don't adopt) the technology. 

Most of our companies have experienced the problem of users going outside of the accepted and supported technologies that are deployed internally with the IT stamp of approval, using things like Dropbox and Slack when there are comparable solutions in place. Rather than react to these activities, have you stopped to figure out why this happens? What is it about these unapproved and unsupported technologies that entice our people away from the approved solutions?

I recently had a conversation with my good friend and fellow Microsoft MVP Benjamin Niaulin (@bniaulin), a well-known technical evangelist from Sharegate, about why most of the developers within his company have moved to Slack. He said that there was no "killer feature" he could point to, except that it had a superior user experience (UX), and that ease of use and "fluid" movement was enough to pull away his team from Microsoft tools.

Setting the Groundwork for Productivity

Organizations spend an enormous amount of time, energy and expense to brand and customize SharePoint so that it better fits their unique organizational requirements and culture. At the recent Enterprise Digital SUMMIT in London, Vodafone's Internal Digital Experience Manager, Stanley Awuku, spoke at length about his company's creation of a SharePoint-based "social workplace" that has become a central part of the company's digital transformation and collaborative culture. Because of the focus on social collaboration and a customized UX which they refer to as "Circle," Vodafone has experienced double-digit adoption of SharePoint, with 75,000 employees registered to use the platform, and over 42,000 employees actively using it each month.

Clearly, UX and social collaboration are important. In the six years since I left Microsoft and ventured back into the SharePoint community, I have presented at dozens of conferences on the topic of social, and throughout those sessions made the case that one of the chief goals of a social collaboration platform is to improve productivity. And for those who have sat through one of those sessions, you know how passionate I am about the idea that social drives collaboration productivity — both through delivering a more engaging user experience, but also, more practically speaking, by improving the search and discovery process.

Metadata Matters

Think about the most common SharePoint scenario: adding a document to a document library. As you upload a file, you might have the ability to apply relevant keywords from a pre-defined term store. Your taxonomy adds structure to the content. In addition to the required taxonomy fields, you may also apply a few relevant keywords that are not part of the taxonomy, but which you know will provide richer context to the content.

Folksonomy, in conjunction with a proactive governance model, refines your taxonomy so that commonly used terms eventually find their way into the managed taxonomy, which allows others to use those terms more broadly. To make this model work requires some effort from your team — a governance process to regularly review end user keywords, delete irrelevant terms, promote others, and overall optimize your platform for a healthy search experience.

Social Enhances

Social utilizes your metadata to enhance conversation, and make your dialog applicable to your work output. Social interaction further enriches the context and visibility of your content, especially when in context of Office Graph and some of the new machine learning capabilities built into the Office 365 experience. Delve is able to learn from the content, people and conversations you interact with — and through your continued social interactions, refines its results based on what it learns.

We don't always know what content we're looking for. The limitation of the traditional search model is that we only find that content which fit into our specific search terms. If someone uploads content without applying taxonomy or folksonomy (which, let's admit it, is the case for the majority of content) then you rely on your search crawler to search through titles and metadata descriptions. But through our social connections, we may locate new content based on personal and professional relationships, and through tags (an ever-growing folksonomy) applied by people you've never met and maybe never will … because they were able to find that content through their social circles and apply some context of their own.

Finding the Natural Fit

Productivity improves when people can find their content, and (more importantly) when the processes you ask them to follow — to ensure that metadata is assigned, and that your compliance/security guidelines are being met — also fits into the way they need to work. That's really the key: a UX that matches the needs and working habits of your people, rather than forces people to learn a new way to work. Social tools tend to be a more natural fit for the way that people connect and collaborate.

There is still so much going on within the social collaboration space, within the SharePoint platform and outside of it. While many of us have become fatigued of the word "social's" use and Microsoft's evolving redirect of every social conversation either to Yammer or now to Office 365 Groups, social collaboration is much bigger than any single tool. Social lies at the core of where SharePoint is going, what end users want out of their tools and platforms, and is the key to making information management accessible.

Title image by Loreta Pavoliene