The Barriers to Working like a Network in Office 365

Microsoft is heavily promoting the idea of working like a network -- connecting to people across geography and time to collaborate. This comes as no surprise given the heavy investment in technology Microsoft has made in products that connect people together in social networks. Social networking features are especially prominent in the Office 365 suite.

An Excess of Choice

SharePoint has newsfeeds to keep employees current on the activities of others along with shared task management and document sharing capabilities. Lync provides communication and presence capabilities across enterprises. OneDrive for Business (which is really a SharePoint site with some extras bolted on) provides sync and share for individuals in the same manner as DropBox and Box’s business offerings. Core Office applications, such as Word and Excel, have lots of sharing and commenting features including co-editing.

Then there’s Yammer. Microsoft paid $1.2B for Yammer which provides an enterprise social network that connects into many other Microsoft applications including Dynamics CRM. It too has an activity feed, commenting and messaging capabilities. Taken together, the Office 365 applications with their desktop, web and mobile expressions, should truly allow Microsoft customers to work like a network.

Alas, it is not the case. To work like a network means more than knowing who people are or what they are doing. It means being able to leverage relationships to get work done and build relationships through shared work. Unfortunately, the applications that knowledge workers most use to work -- Office applications -- have too much overlap and not enough integration to make this a reality.

For example, if someone wants to share a file with a co-worker, they can share it through Yammer, OneDrive for Business, SharePoint and email via Outlook. On the surface that sounds like choice but in practice it’s confusing. The same is true for messaging. Is it better to use Lync, Yammer or Outlook? Or maybe Skype? There are just too many decisions.

Simplify the Collaboration Process

The result is that end users will pick whichever they think works best for them. This works against creating network effects since it effectively Balkanizes sharing and communication. If Joe wants to share with Jill, Joe needs to know how Jill typically shares. Should Joe use his favorite method or Jill’s? By not sharing in the same way, interactions are awkward for both of them. Having so much overlap -- especially in sharing and communication -- creates network silos around the primary way end-users share and communicate: Yammer, SharePoint, Outlook and Lync.

Solid integration would help but, once again, that’s not enough. Microsoft will never enable customers to actually work like a network until they rationalize the Office 365 suite. Rationalization doesn’t mean creating one mega application. Individual applications that encompass a set of sharing methodologies is a better solution because it allows organizations to decide what tools will help them share and communication. There only needs to be one activity feed, one IM feature, one set of tasks and one file sharing mechanism shared by all Office 365 applications.

It has been suggested that the new Microsoft social search capability called Delve will fix these problems. Delve helps end-users to find and make sense of the volume of information contained in all of these Office applications. It does nothing to solve the integration problem. End-users will still have too many overlapping choices. Delve helps end-users find content but that doesn’t help them choose the best communication path. Office 365 needs an interface that unifies all the components of office, similar to what IBM is attempting with IBM Mail Next.

End-users don’t care which software provides the functionality as long as they don’t have to constantly switch applications to get to the features they need. The less they know about how this happens, the better. And that’s the crux of the problem. End-users have to know too much about who uses which application to use them effectively. That requires too much psychological energy and presents a barrier to working like a network.

Title image by Washington State Department of Transportation (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license