A dozy Friday afternoon in mid-summer is just the time to announce a change in direction, which is just what Microsoft did today when they said that the current Yammer-based Office 365 Network was going to be swapped out for a new Office 365 Network powered by the well-known Lithium platform. Sounds good! But some bumps lie along this particular road as the new platform might not be quite fit for Microsoft’s purpose yet.
Today, Microsoft announced the public preview of a new Office 365 Network online community to replace the longstanding Yammer-powered Office 365 Network, which currently has over 88,000 members. Unlike some of the folks who have commented in other articles (largely cut and pasted from the Microsoft blog), I have used the new Lithium-powered network for a few weeks (it was open to MVPs) and have lots of experience of the good and bad points of the current Office 365 Network.
Even after using the new network, it’s hard to know why Microsoft is making the change. It seems to detract from their message that Yammer is a capable enterprise collaboration platform and lays weight to the argument that Yammer has not done so well since Microsoft acquired it in 2012.
In their blog, Microsoft point out that there are some downsides of Yammer that make it less usable as a general-purpose open-to-all platform. First, you need to register and sign-on to access the Yammer network (sign-on is only necessary to contribute to the new platform). Second, the current Office 365 Network is a walled garden whose content is only accessible and searchable to its members. The desire is to have all of the content contributed to the new network by subject matter experts such as product group engineers, MVPs, and experienced administrators show up in search results.
Early signs are that the decision is not going down well with those who like using the current platform (Figure 1). Comments like the example shown below are representative of the initial feeling of the community:
“You all didn't put a lot of time, energy, or focus into improving upon the platform you already have and instead jumped ship to something else. I'll be very candid and say that I don't feel that this decision was made with the IT professional in mind. I feel as though this was a decision that was heavily influenced by Marketing and Communications that didn't take into consideration the heavy benefit and appeal that IT professionals get from leveraging this platform. In an attempt to garner a larger audience, you are simultaneously hurting quite a large portion of the community who were very active and engaged.”
Figure 1: The “old” Yammer-based Office 365 Network
Nice as it will be for people who want to be silent lurkers to be able to access the information in the new network, you can’t help thinking that the world’s largest software company could not have addressed the issues in one of its own products to enable it to continue acting as the collaboration fulcrum for Office 365, especially one that is enabled for every Office 365 enterprise tenant.
Perhaps it was too difficult to expose content from the Yammer network to the likes of Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo or perhaps the feeling was that Microsoft engineers would better dedicate their skills and time to driving Yammer forward in other directions rather than writing code to allow people to earn the profusion of badges available in the new network.
Responding to the concerns of network members in Yammer, Kristian Andaker, the GM of Yammer, said that the “scenario of offering internet-public forums is not what the Yammer product is for.” He went on to say “We believe there are other, more important investments for Yammer, which will benefit our customers more. Yammer is for collaborating and communicating in smaller (yet still large—our largest today are around 500.000-600.000 users) organizations/networks.” Kristian also said, “Yammer is as much a mainstream and widely used component of O365 as Exchange, SharePoint and Skype today.” Loyal as Kristian is to his product, I doubt that Yammer is as mainstream as either Exchange or SharePoint, except perhaps in that Microsoft treats it as an Office 365 workload like any of the others.
For whatever reason, the die is cast and the new network will morph from preview to full-time on September 1, 2016 with the existing network being closed off soon afterwards.
Microsoft will continue to operate Yammer-based networks for purposes such as NDA discussions with customers and MVPs where it is definitively desirable to have strong authentication to control access and to avoid confidential content showing up in search results.
Figure 2: The entry point to the new Office 365 network
Based on my experience, some work is required to make the new platform fit for Microsoft’s purpose. Navigation and general access to threads is slower than Yammer and tends to crash at times (the circular spinning icon is pretty though). I don’t care for the design and layout either (Figure 2), which seems to favor large graphics over access to content. The threaded discussions are not as efficient as I would like. The lack of a mobile app for the new platform is also a worry. In contrast, Yammer boasts a good mobile app that makes access to the Office 365 Network a breeze.
Most of all, I am concerned that all of the information gathered in the old Office 365 Network will not be carried across into the new, which means that all of the accumulated experience, wisdom, tips, and some funny stories will be lost forever. Jeff Medford of Microsoft says that they will not do a wholesale migration, but that they are looking at copying “the top posts, top discussions, and top pieces of content”. Identifying that information is quite a task. One obvious issue is that people who contributed to the old network might not consent to their contributions being surfaced in a new platform that exposes their views to the internet.
Change is always difficult to accomplish and I wish the Microsoft team who is driving this process success as they seek to eliminate bugs, improve performance, and encourage people to participate. It would be sad if a sizable proportion of the 88,000 people who made up the old network decided not to move across, but I fear that might happen.
Launching a new venture on a Friday afternoon in mid-summer is probably not a great way to get people on board either. I’m not sure Microsoft communicated the need for change as well as they might have to convince people that moving to a (preview) buggy and slow platform is the right path forward.
Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.
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