waves coming into the shore
Office 365 offers great functionality, but that functionality can overwhelm employees if rolled out all at once. A staggered approach allows employees to get comfortable with one tool before taking on another PHOTO: Ivan Sanford

Office 365 offers many possibilities for organizations. Aside from moving your organization to the cloud, Microsoft's productivity suite includes a range of tools that address a wide range of collaboration and business process needs.

But there’s so much to learn with Office 365. The comprehensiveness of the solution is daunting to the average user, who are being tasked with adopting radically new ways of working. This means a move to Office 365 requires a comprehensive change management and adoption effort if you want usage to move beyond “patches of success.”

The answer is to abandon the idea of “The Launch” of Office 365. One big-bang project can never produce the desired outcome. Instead, launch Office 365 in multiple waves, with each wave tackling either a new technology or user group.

Office 365: Too Much, Too Fast

Microsoft has been busy fleshing out the capabilities of Office 365 in recent years. This effort includes adding a wide range of collaboration and social capabilities, from Skype for Business messaging (soon to be folded into Teams), to Yammer for knowledge sharing and Teams for, well, teams, and more.

Beyond the online versions of Word, Excel and Outlook, most of the tools and functionality of Office 365 will be unfamiliar to everyday end users. And that can cause confusion, because every feature in Office 365 is turned on by default when the suite is first launched.

The Office 365 learning curve is punishingly steep for end users (and for the digital workplace teams themselves). The world is now full of “use this tool for that” diagrams that attempt to help people navigate these new waters, but these visual aids quickly become both complex and incomplete.

Microsoft has recognized that adoption is crucial for the success of Office 365 deployments, and that the platform will only have a long-term future if organizations and their employees use it deeply. The company has provided a range of training materials, and a growing number of adoption consultants can provide hands-on help.

But that's still not enough. With more than a dozen tools to learn from the get-go, a full-scale Office 365 deployment is simply too much, too fast. Inevitably, such an approach will result in pockets of extensive use in an overall organizational landscape of confusion or apathy.

The only practical answer is to move away from launching (or at least promoting) everything at once.

Start by Launching the Platform

Moving into the cloud can be transformational, even without new tools or features. Modern cloud-based infrastructures replace aging in-house servers, which are often hobbled by rapidly diminishing storage space and performance.

Having email in the cloud also removes security and infrastructure barriers that prevented employees from using mobile devices. Similarly, Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud hosting service provides universal access to documents and offers a simple mechanism for sharing them among users.

These capabilities, plus the online versions of Word and Excel, are worth launching on their own merits. But doing so will involve a lot of work to migrate user details and content into the cloud.

Note that even an initial launch of the basic platform may need to be downplayed in departments where many users are field or frontline employees. Many of these staffers may have previously used shared machines and may not have had individual email accounts. The extra cost of end-user licenses for these employees may be prohibitive at the outset; it may be best to address these people in a later wave.

Multiple Waves

Real organizational change is reckoned to take a decade or more. Even in the accelerated pace of modern businesses, the shift toward more collaborative practices should be considered a process, not a project.

Once the core platform is in place, the central digital workplace team (or equivalent) should plan to handle subsequent deployments in “waves.” Because of the smaller scope of these deployments, the wave approach offers advantages such as:

  • You can target individual waves to specific groups or use cases.
  • The change management workload is lighter.
  • Internal communication about each wave is simpler and clearer.
  • It is possible to take a “high-touch” approach with smaller individual deployments.
  • You can plan clear business benefits for each wave.
  • Setting clear expecations about the multiple wave approach rather than the big-bang project will likely lower employee's anxiety.
In practice, there are two main types of waves: technology waves and people waves.

Technology Waves

Technology waves typically focus on a single capability within Office 365, or a set of related functions that address a specific use case.

A good example is the Teams functionality in Office 365. Inspired by Slack and other collaboration tools, Teams is already proving to be a highly effective application for smaller groups, and Microsoft is in the process of doubling-down on these features.

As is the case with many other aspects of Office 365, end users won’t automatically understand how to use Teams effectively. It’s not like Facebook, LinkedIn or any other consumer social networking tool.

So a wave focused on deploying Teams would need the following:

  • A “launch” of the new functionality (even if it was already activated during the initial platform deployment).
  • A clear commitment to Teams by senior leaders.
  • Clear communication about the purpose and role of Teams.
  • Hands-on training and support to the business units that are most likely to benefit from Teams.
  • Online help and other support resources.
  • Stories about early successes that can be used to encourage further adoption.

While a technology wave is more than just activating a capability, organizations should not be daunted by the list outlined above. Projects can be quite small and contained, and if they’re chosen carefully, they can rapidly build momentum for further adoption.

People Waves

Collaboration tools, social networks and personal productivity tools are clearly all about people. And every business unit — and every individual employee — will have unique needs and will use Office 365 in unique ways. Therefore, some of the waves in your Office 365 deployment should be people waves.

For example, call center employees would benefit greatly from instant communication with peers, but they are not likely to be cocreating documents. Conversely, knowledge workers may benefit most from document-centric functionality and would welcome broader knowledge-sharing capabilities across the organization as a whole.

People waves target specific job roles or specific areas of the business. For a people wave to succeed, you must do the following:

  • Conduct field research to deeply understand staff and business unit needs.
  • Identify the Office 365 tool(s) that will be of greatest use.
  • Engage middle managers and other stakeholders to build support for changes in working practices.
  • Provide training to whole groups, not just individuals, to support more comprehensive behavioral change.
  • Celebrate successes, and make sure the whole organization knows about them.

Waves Are Productive and Satisfying

Changing business behaviors can take a lifetime of work, but the waves approach breaks this down into a series of manageable and achievable activities. By targeting specific technology capabilities or staff groups, you can achieve much more productive and tangible outcomes.

Start with an initial wave to deploy the platform, and then plan a series of waves to fully exploit the possibilities that Office 365 offers.