Expanding Our Collaboration Footprint Through Social

Christian Buckley

by Christian Buckley on 12/28/2015

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Within the SharePoint community, social tools came to the forefront of the conversation with SharePoint 2010 — primarily citing the lack of social capabilities within the platform. The consumer options available to end users within the enterprise had been multiplying rapidly and the “Face- book Era” was coming up to speed. Organizations were realizing that their employees were not adopting the solutions placed in front of them — or even if they were logging in and uploading documents on occasion, they were not fully engaged. As feedback began to flow into Microsoft, the people had spoken — they wanted stronger social capabilities.

Of course, Microsoft focused a large segment of their strategy on native social capabilities for the next version, SharePoint 2013. But Microsoft found itself in a growing competitive situation with industry-leader Yammer, which led to a $1.2 billion acquisition of Yammer in 2012. There was initially some functional overlap, and some resulting confusion in the marketplace about Microsoft’s long-term strategy. However, the company did gain a number of things out of this acquisition: around 4 million registered users, a purely cloud-based platform option, and a strong metric-driven development ethic that employed constant A/B testing.

Out-of-the-box SharePoint provides a very compelling set of features for content management and team collaboration — whether on-premises or in the cloud. But until recently, the overall strategy for social was still unclear. Furthermore, many organizations have continued to experience problems with their deployments — from weak use of taxonomy and templates to inconsistent governance and management standards. User adoption (people going to the platform) and engagement (using the platform to conduct their business activities) are ongoing management concerns, and the quality of collaboration on the platform is directly impacted by lack of adoption and engagement.

Cloud Enables Innovation

Thanks to the rapid adoption of cloud-based solutions, the way teams collaborate and connect inside and outside of the enterprise is changing. Tools that overtly manage and manipulate content are becoming more seamless and integrated across on-premises and online platforms. More than that, the lines between the tools we use at work and at home are blurring. Social is becoming less about a destination (going outside of your team site to a separate URL to have a social interaction with others) and more about delivering a seamless social experience that persists across workloads.

The maturity of Office 365 as a home for the next generation of social collaboration within the Microsoft universe is becoming better understood. The future of social, according to Microsoft, is all about the cloud. Even so, the social options outside of (or alongside) the Microsoft platform have also expanded, with several innovative companies offering an integrated social story across on-premises and online assets. These options allow customers to maintain their on-premises SharePoint platforms, getting value from existing investments, while also taking advantage of the latest social technologies to help drive adoption and innovation across the enterprise. Some organizations will turn to newer versions of the SharePoint platform in hopes that new features and capabilities will help fill the social gap. And other companies will consider these third-party solutions and tools as a way to engage end users and improve adoption.

According to AIIM.org president John Mancini, the world of content management has moved from a “system of record” to a “system of engagement” model. In this new model, social technology has become as important, if not more important, than the enterprise collaboration features that have driven the success of SharePoint and its competitors. He writes:

“Forrester talks about how the combination of cloud, SaaS, mobile, social, and analytics dramatically changes the nature of collaboration, making it possible for the first time to truly address all of the grey areas of our business processes. They call this opportunity ‘Smart Process Applications,’ and I think there is a great deal to this line of thought. Every industry has processes that at first glance seem automated. And at the surface level they are. But the reality beneath the surface is that most processes have countless branches and outcroppings where right now lots of manual and ad hoc collaboration occurs. It is in the automation of these ‘exceptions’ that enormous opportunity lies.”

As Mancini points out, our expectations about collaboration are changing as rapidly as the software and services that drive our enterprises. One clear benefit of social technologies is to provide a social fabric between our various business processes, allowing discussion — whether in real-time or through asynchronous communication — to bridge the gap between business workloads. The problem with collaboration, it seems, has little to do with the technology itself. It has more to do with the failure of organizations to align the technology with the business, and with the corporate culture.

The next version of SharePoint (SharePoint Server 2016 for on-premises environments, with Office 365 for the cloud) is not about the SharePoint we know and use today, but about the search and social services at its core. In a blog post earlier this year, Office Products GM Julia White spoke about the end-to-end “experiences” on which Microsoft is now focusing: the social interactions we have with our peers, our coworkers, and our customers across common workloads.

Social collaboration works best when it happens in the context of the work you are performing, and that is where Microsoft is focusing their efforts going forward. Many enterprises were on this path already, using free and consumer-based social platforms to fill the gaps between the structured collaboration platforms and their defined workloads. Microsoft has observed this shift in its own customer base, has learned from it, and is applying that learning to the next version of SharePoint and the Office 365 suite.

Think about the macro level of your collaborations, the increasing volume of content created. And even beyond the content, consider the data that is generated based on your social interactions, your search queries, your affiliations and transactional footprint. Microsoft is rapidly evolving their collaboration and social platforms, combining machine learning and cut- ting-edge business intelligence capabilities that draw from these various signals to provide a highly personalized experience for the end user. With the announcements for Office Graph and general availability of the Delve search interface, Microsoft is beginning to show signs of their future direction: data-driven, personalized, productivity-based solutions.

Besides search, the new Groups functionality is the first Microsoft foray into inline social experiences that enable social interactions within a single application, such as PowerPoint or OneNote. And Groups also lets you move with that same interaction across workloads—for example, a conversation started in Exchange might move across to Word or Excel, as needed, while remaining in context to the original interaction and in real time.

With the strategy change toward more social and search-centric solutions, observers expect to see additional changes to Microsoft product and engineering team processes. This may, in turn, increase the rate of change and innovation from the company. Specifically, Microsoft is investing more heavily in additional Data and Applied Science resources within each team to expand telemetry, improve processes and increase quality.

Speaking about this increased focus on data-driven prioritization, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented, “I consider the job before us to be bolder and more ambitious than anything we have ever done.”

Social Is at the Center of Productivity

At the 2014 Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference, CEO Nadella shared a new vision for the company with a focus on platforms and productivity. For those of us within the SharePoint community, this change of focus was already well underway. With the release of SharePoint 2013, it was announced that all innovation would be focused on the cloud first, and that Office 365 would be at the forefront of the productivity strategy.

In a memorandum to employees in July 2014, Nadella stated:

“Productivity for us goes well beyond documents, spreadsheets and slides. We will reinvent productivity for people who are swimming in a growing sea of devices, apps, data and social networks. We will build the solutions that address the productivity needs of groups and entire organizations as well as individuals by putting them at the center of their computing experiences. We will shift the meaning of productivity beyond solely producing something to include empowering people with new insights. We will build tools to be more predictive, personal and helpful.”
“Every experience Microsoft builds will understand the rich context of an individual at work and in life to help them organize and accomplish things with ease.”  Read more at http://bit.ly/1qNqtP3

Of course, technology is just one aspect of any productivity strategy. In the new world of information management and collaboration, where social plays such an important role in driving workplace productivity, organizations must consider how they will approach productivity as part of their corporate governance activities. As they seek to improve productivity within the enterprise, there are four key areas that every organization should clearly define and develop strategies for:

  1. Information and Collaboration Management

    Within the past decade, document collaboration has evolved from a team-based toolset to a business-critical requirement for the enterprise. As the leading document management and collaboration platform, SharePoint—and its online successor, Office 365, which also includes web-based email and communications services—has helped enterprises to break down many of the data silos surrounding their content and business processes. But while collaboration platforms are relatively easy to deploy and start using, most environments struggle with end user adoption and ongoing engagement due to a lack of alignment with key business processes, and a failure to understand the motivations of their end users.

  2. Capture and Correlation

    A knowledge management platform is only as good as the information it holds within. For example, a number of vendors have built their businesses on the capture of paper-based knowledge assets. And yet the volume of digital and rich media assets far surpasses the paper problem. In 2014, it was estimated that the average SharePoint farm contained over 1TB of data, but was growing 50 percent to 75 percent per year. As more and more organizations begin to focus on social interactions and Big Data assets, this rate of growth will only increase. It will become increasingly important to ensure all pertinent data is being captured and is identified in context to projects, customer data, business processes, legal and regulatory restrictors, and other related assets.

  3. Social Interaction

    With the rise of popularity of social networking platforms in the consumer space over the past decade, many enterprises began to look at these same social capabilities as a way to improve the “stickiness” of their knowledge management and collaboration platforms. As the capabilities of these tools matured, their use as communications tools has evolved as well, with most enterprise applications now including some sort of social capabilities. Instant messaging, once a stand-alone tool, has now become ubiquitous for internal communication. And SharePoint and competitive platforms provide inline social experiences that allow for contextual interactions within key workloads, such as when jointly editing a PowerPoint presentation.

    The current reality is that these social technology tools, including Microsoft Yammer, Salesforce Chatter, and any other competitive social platform, generate massive amounts of valuable content. And they help our systems to better understand how we work and who we work with, providing yet another indispensable layer to our knowledge management platforms.

  4. Search and Dissemination
  5. Search has always been a central knowledge management concern. Storing content is relatively easy; creating a search platform that is easy to use and also powerful is both art and science. As the volume and complexity of our data has grown, the need for dynamic, powerful and personalized tools to help us search, find and share our content has become a business imperative. Microsoft understood the search requirement when it acquired FAST Search in 2008. Microsoft built upon the technology for its 2010 and 2013 releases to develop a new family of search-based capabilities, such as Delve and Clutter, available through SharePoint Online (as part of Office 365).

    Using machine learning and the data captured through social interactions, Delve offers a personalized view of an end user’s content, organized by content currently accessed, by content shared by team members, or by learning from end-user activities. One of the problems with traditional search is that you need to know something about what you are looking for. Whereas Delve can surface data based on your interactions and the importance of that content to people within your close network. Clutter likewise uses machine learning to filter your email based on past history, reducing the amount of “noise” coming through your mailbox.

As you begin to think about the future of your own knowledge and collaboration management platforms, take the time for honest reflection about what tools and processes are helping you to identify, classify, contextualize and correlate your information assets. And identify which ones are hindering that process. The success of any project can hinge on having a shared understanding of what is to be achieved.

Extending Social Collaboration

A key to success in enterprise social has been to align social activities with specific business activities. An example of this is incorporating polling, threaded messaging, and ratings systems common in most enterprise social platforms into the product development processes, allowing the extended team to provide input into the identification and prioritization of features in a company’s product roadmap. By extending discussion beyond the product development team (to include support, sales, marketing and possibly even customers), quality is improved (more specific, refined requirements). And expectations are better met (participants understand reasons behind architectural and feature decisions, and the timing of the next release).

While there are certainly ample scenarios for ad hoc, or unstructured collaboration activities (community building, idea creation), many organizations are recognizing the need for a more robust, structured collaboration model for their social activities. In other words, it’s becoming not only more common, but expected, to have the ability to be “social” within the context of common enterprise workloads—such as records management, customer relationship management (CRM), or human resources-related activities. A quick threaded discussion could remove the need for hours of group planning sessions, reduce lengthy workflows, and help geographically dispersed teams stay in the loop.

One strategy for making collaboration analytics actionable in the organization is to introduce gamification techniques. In a nutshell, gamification is the process of measuring system behavior through community management, reward and loyalty programs, and game design. Gamification is, simply put, a set of tools to help you motivate and incentivize behavior on the system. Social-based gamification techniques are becoming more and more popular within corporate environments and public-facing sites as organizations look for ways to keep users engaged.

Whether you deploy simple chat-based social features or a feature-rich gamification platform, here are some strategies you should consider as you develop your own plan:

  1. Collect the right data.

    It’s not simply a matter of gathering all data related to social interactions within your platform of choice. In the case of SharePoint, that could be a massive amount of data across numerous content databases. Understand the core metrics you want to measure, and the data you believe is needed, to accurately report on those metrics.

  2. Identify the metrics that matter.

    Identifying “the right metrics” can be a complex task in itself. Your metrics may be limited by the data that you have access to within your tools. But at the very least you can create assumptions and baselines for each metric, and refine them as you go.

    An important aspect of tracking any metric is understanding how to take action on the data. A poor quality metric is one that includes no path forward, no way to make an improvement. Understand how to take action on what you learn (positive or negative), and refine your metrics as you learn more about how people are using the tools.

  3. Review the data, and test your assumptions.

    You’ve captured the data. You’ve created your baseline social collaboration metrics. And now it’s time to share what you’ve learned—or, I should say, what you believe you have learned—with your management team and with your end users. Make the metrics transparent, share what you think the data means, and fold their feedback back into the testing and analysis process.

    It could be that you need to “tweak” the data and your metrics because the results may not show you enough of what you want to know about your end users’ behavior. Iteration is always a positive thing, because it means you’re getting closer to the truth.

  4. Give it some time, and watch the trends.

    No metric at a single point in time is as valuable as the same metric shown over time. The value of the information is rarely in a snapshot, but rather in the upward or downward trends over time. When people know they’re being measured, they tend to adjust their activities toward those metrics to make themselves look good—which is perfectly normal. So as people adjust to the metrics, you’ll want to refine your analysis, and once again review your data sources and your metrics to ensure you’re making the right assessments.

  5. Fold what you learn into a strategy.
  6. With data and metrics in hand, you’re ready to develop an overall strategy for improving social collaboration within your organization. And by improving social collaboration, you enable your employees to be more productive, accomplish more work activity, and collaborate with purpose.

    A sound strategy must first establish a set of proper expectations. Be open with your team and employees about what you are trying to achieve, and work closely with them to develop the right solutions that will motivate the right behaviors. Your strategy must focus on your end-user objectives—the desired behavior—and align with business processes. And it is also critical to align incentives and rewards with team and corporate culture, ensuring they will truly motivate your team. For example, many sales reps are driven by leaderboards (another gamification technique) with highly competitive rewards by day, week, month, quarter and year. But that strategy may not span other parts of the company (marketing, operations, engineering) if your goal is to create programs across the entire company.

The key to success for managing all of these different tools and platforms can best be summarized by these five tips for IT administrators and business users. Keep these tips in mind when collaborating across multiple platforms:

Define how each tool is to be used.

Understand the primary use cases for each tool, and their target users. Each solution has specific strengths and clearly defined use cases. Chatter, for example, might be the right place for sales teams to communicate; but it is probably not the best platform to use as your system of record for storing content. A huge benefit of using Dynamics CRM over Salesforce is your ability to embed Yammer conversations within the platform. Those same conversations (Yammer Groups) can then be embedded within SharePoint, making all customer conversations in Dynamics visible across SharePoint and the Office 365 platform.

Talk to your end users about these use cases. If their expectations extend beyond the proper use of the platforms, use this as an opportunity to educate them on other available tools or document these unmet requirements as you investigate additional solutions.

Understand the boundaries of each platform.

Do you know the storage limits for each list and library? Does the tool require performance maintenance to ensure quality of service? Are there reports, metrics, or flexible configuration settings that enable you to better manage these tools? Know the limits of each tool, take the time to do some capacity planning for their expected growth, and figure out how you will support your end users going forward.

Manage (encourage) engagement.

You’ve worked with your end users to understand how they plan to use the tools. You’ve done your homework on how users interact and what support is needed to keep them engaged. But suddenly, usage drops. What went wrong?

Ensure visibility measures are in place to monitor how your employees are using their collaboration tools, and talk to them about what is working and what is not. In the early stages of any new technology deployment, there will be adjustments as you and your end users adapt to them. Encourage feedback and stay ahead of the change management process.

Monitor adoption.

Keep track of overall activity to get a sense of user adoption. Some tools have a short-term life as the needs of the business change and as end-user workloads shift. This is the reality (and the downside) of the consumerization of IT: fickle end users. It is highly recommended that companies pilot before full-scale deployments of new collaboration platforms.

Lead, don’t follow.

This one is less clear and more forward-looking, but still important. Watch for end-user behaviors that may lead to adoption of new technologies. Widespread use of Facebook is a good indicator that your end users may want or need some kind of social collaboration platform, but in a slightly more secure manner. Instead of being reactive to these changing trends, keep abreast of new technologies. Work with your end users to try out new tools and platforms, experimenting with ways to improve overall collaboration. If you build a culture of experimentation and trust, your end users are more willing to provide feedback on their collaboration habits and usage.

The rapid increase in collaborative technologies is exciting. We are witnessing a dramatic change in the way that information workers access and relate to content, and how they interact through team collaboration environments. Take advantage of these new tools and platforms. Benefit from their ability to spark innovation across your business to drive engagement, improve collaboration and instill a stronger sense of community.

It’s easy to get carried away with metrics and gamification techniques to the point where you lose sight of what really matters to your business. Listening to your end users is important. But essential to the long-term health and well-being of your business interests is to have a more balanced approach using sound governance principles and flexible solutions for your employees. You want to encourage employee collaboration and enhance their productivity, but at the same time mitigate risks across the systems they use. The goal should be to stay in tune with changing trends and new technology through visibility and control processes. Experiment with new initiatives that help you innovate and keep your end users engaged—always with the focus on driving value to the business.


This article by Christian Buckley is one of many great chapters in the book, Improve It! A Collection of Essays on Using Analytics to Accomplish More With SharePoint. With multiple perspectives from Microsoft insiders (including IT Unity favorites Susan Hanley, Agnes Molnar, Naomi Moneypenny), leading SharePoint consulting firms and industry luminaries, find out how using analytics to measure SharePoint for social, collaborative and engagement enables improved ROI. And, if you’re interested getting started with better measurement of your SharePoint, you can learn more about SharePoint Analytics from Webtrends now.

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