man with headphones on looking at a laptop
PHOTO: Annie Spratt

Microsoft brought its Ignite conference on tour to Toronto recently and delivered two solid days of sessions on Teams, SharePoint, PowerApps and Flow, PowerBI and countless other topics. I want to reflect a bit on what I heard there in relation to collaboration in Microsoft and content services technologies and then tie all this back to this month's digital literacy focus.

Taking these mini-conferences on the road is a smart idea. While it must be costing Microsoft a tidy sum, it's a great vehicle to get its marketing message across and deliver some good education sessions to the segment of its audience it calls "IT Pros." So if you didn’t make it to the main event last year, you have one chance left in North America: Washington D.C. in February. The rest of the world has plenty of dates still to come.

Ignite, The Tour: Main Takeaways

The conference didn't share any earth-shattering SharePoint news, but offered a nice overview of announcements from the main conference as well as a few things released since. The sessions on Teams were particularly informative. My high level takeaways were:

  • Teams has taken the crown away from SharePoint as the best selling Microsoft application.
  • There is a definite and deliberate push to make Teams the center of the workplace.
  • Microsoft continues to add data loss prevention, compliance and records management functionality across the suite.

Microsoft has already built an impressive level of extensibility into Teams, with more to come. One area where this came up was its integration with SharePoint. 

A SharePoint online site is the backbone of any Office365 group. Teams utilizes the document library of such a SharePoint site for the “Files” tab associated with any group. If you share files in a chat, it uses your OneDrive for Business, but for groups, it's SharePoint, with the document library containing a folder for each channel. One enhancement mentioned during both Teams and SharePoint sessions at the conference was that Files tabs will start surfacing more native SharePoint document library functionality, basically making it a “native SharePoint” experience, with access to views, metadata, workflow and more.

Teams offers equally impressive facilities to add non-Microsoft applications, either through the integration library or via custom development. Whether it’s via Tabs exposing integrated apps, bots within conversation channels or adaptive cards as part of an activity feed, the narrative continues to make Teams the “center of gravity” for many workers — or should we just call it the new portal as I wrote two years ago?

Related Article: Microsoft Teams: The Good, The Bad, The 'Is it Ready'?

SharePoint Continues to Improve Incrementally

However, if you don’t want to think about Teams as a portal, you can still build a “traditional” one using SharePoint Online modern sites. Digital workplaces still have a place for a set of web pages where you publish information for a broad audience to consume. SharePoint Hubs and Communications sites give you plenty of facilities and options to do so (though of course, these sites can be surfaced on a tab within Teams).

However if your business processes do not require persistent chat, live synchronous co-editing of documents or other features brought by Teams, but do require document and records management, SharePoint Online continues to develop in this respect. One sign of this is the new formatting options in Document Libraries.

To paraphrase Chris McNulty, senior product manager for SharePoint and Office 365 at Microsoft, you have plenty of options. You don’t need to force your employees onto Teams if a SharePoint based solution would work better for them. Some people have roles where they'd be better served by having Outlook as their “center of gravity” — I know, the shock and horror! Which leads to our discussion of digital literacy.

Related Article: Don't Know Which Microsoft Collaboration Tool to Use? You're Not Alone

The Digital Literacy Conundrum

Back in November 2016 I wrote an article on the negative impacts a lack of digital literacy could have on digital transformation efforts. It referenced a Nielsen Norman Group article called: “The Distribution of Users’ Computer Skills: Worse Than You Think.” The article, in turn, referenced a major OECD research report. TL:DR: if you're reading this article, you are probably in the top 5 percent in the world, if not the top 1 percent, when it comes to digital skills.

As technologists, we should never be over-confident in our workforce’s ability to “just” change to a new way of doing things, with a new technology, a new interface, a new set of tools. Hopefully we are all mature enough to never fall for the "shiny object syndrome," i.e. introducing new technology for technology's sake. We are however still presented with the conundrum of what to do if our workforce, or elements of it, are judged to have a low level of digital literacy when they join our organizations. 

My colleagues wrote many good articles on how to improve digital literacy this month. I would like to take up Brad Grissom of Microsoft’s suggestion that we should talk about levels of digital proficiency. While it might be beyond our organizational remit, we can, as citizens and parents, engage with our local, regional and national education systems on how our children are taught technology, through K-12 and into college and university.

Within our organizations we must look to recruiting as the first step, by finding the best talent to recruit, and then working hard to develop and retain these talented individuals. Things can get messy at that point, so I tried to produce a simplified venn diagram of some of the factors involved in digital proficiency from my perspective:

venn diagram

As you can probably tell from my “simplified” picture, there's clearly no easy answer to the problem of low societal and workforce digital proficiency. Depending on our roles and influence within our organizations, we must try to ensure that training is no longer the first thing to get cut when the budget constricts; that we provide adequate resources and time so employees can undertake external training and education. A focus on employee learning and development, that aligns with business process strategies and with the technologies that support and facilitate the digital transformation of these processes, is highly important.

This is not a generational thing. I have worked with and supported incredibly geeky boomers, and incredibly technologically inept millennials. However, we must acknowledge not everyone needs to be in the OECD’s highest skill level category and not everyone outside of IT needs to be a citizen developer or business power user. Which brings us back to our Microsoft use cases above. Sometimes Outlook is going to be the tool that person needs to get their job done — so why push them onto the latest and greatest?

Related Article: Why Play Is Important for Digital Literacy

There Is Hope

It’s not all gloom and doom. Improving digital proficiency is within reach, provided you commit to it. 

I met a colleague at the Ignite Tour who is trained as a lawyer and is currently a compliance specialist. Her employer had given her the time to attend the conference to improve her knowledge and her digital proficiency. I know L&D professionals who can turn out awesome SharePoint-based solutions, and change management specialists who very easily moved from Outlook and Project to Teams and Planner (when appropriate). AIIM is currently working on updating it’s Certified Information Professional (CIP) certification to version three, and they and other professional bodies continue to provide great training courses and materials. 

All of this to say that there are opportunities out there for us to grasp the nettle and help improve digital proficiency!