Dear Microsoft: I’m Confused. Can You Help Me Collaborate Well?

Yup, I’ll admit it: I’m confused.

The launch of Microsoft Teams last week is what’s done it. First of all, from everything I’ve seen of the new tool, it’s really cool. I had some trouble getting my head around how to get it up and running in our Sympraxis Office 365 tenant, but now Julie (@jfj1997) and I are taking it for a spin and we like it.

Microsoft Teams

What’s confusing to me is where Microsoft Teams fits into the spectrum of similar offerings, which all look pretty much the same to me on many levels. We have Yammer, Group Conversations, Microsoft Teams, email, Team Site Discussions, and the old SharePoint newsfeed. Now, I’ll allow that the last two are pretty much obsolete, but they are still in the UIs and people see them. This is a lot of choices.

Every time Microsoft comes out with a new “social” tool set, the rhetoric around its positioning tends to be “Hey, we think you like choices, and here’s another choice for you!” It’s absolutely true that everyone works differently, but there are patterns in those different ways of working. While we all may be special flowers (see my comments about millennials below), but we aren’t snowflakes; there is a lot of similarity in the types of things we are trying to solve in our collaborations.

I wish I could find the old slides we used to use when I worked in Renaissance Solutions back in the late 1990s, but I think they have been lost to the electrons of time. When we talked about the different communications mechanisms that we available for people to use for good knowledge management, we listed out 6-8 methods. We talked about them being part of a portfolio of options, each of which had specific set of good use cases. (Some of the terminology has changed, but the ideas haven’t changed all that much.)

For instance, you shouldn’t fire someone over email because it’s an emotional event; that deserves and in-person meeting (generally one-on-one). You also shouldn’t call an all hands company meeting if you’re just reviewing a task checklist if an electronic sharing mechanism works just as well. And so on. These common sense rules are broken all the time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make simple senss. It’s often simply that no one has provided enough guidance on how to think about things.

One of the big issues I see in our overly connected world these days is misuse of the various options we have at hand. One example is Microsoft support calling me on the phone when I’ve created a support ticket via the Web; generally we should stick to one modality and not shift mid-stream. Like it or not, the initiator gets to choose, and we should only switch by mutual agreement. (“Would you mind if I emailed you some more details?” in a conversation, for instance.) Sometimes my wife and I have this problem, too. We might start a conversation in a text, it jumps over to email, and then becomes a note on the counter. That jumping between methods waters down the interaction and makes it far more confusing. One of the methods was probably the right one, but we’ve subverted that.

What has me confused about Microsoft’s overlapping offerings in the communication spectrum is that they don’t come with guidance about which is good when or for what type of organizations. Instead we see a lot of talk about choice being good. Choice seems good, but when you get right down to it, open choice leads to a certain amount of chaos. Many people I talk to would like some sort of help understanding what Microsoft is thinking, at least, but Microsoft seems unwilling to do this.

When Microsoft is working on the development of a new tool like Microsoft Teams or adding enhancements to an older tool set like Yammer, they must have use cases in mind. (I truly hope this is the case, and I believe it has to be!) But those use cases don’t really make it out to us in the form of helpful portfolio management strategies.

One standard Microsoft answer to things like this is that it’s a “partner opportunity”. That would be an excellent answer if every partner understood how to do this type of positioning, but many don’t. Many partners are technical partners and focus far more on implementing the hardware and software (nay, services). This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the way it works.

As a consultant who has done a lot of knowledge management work and collaboration and strategy work after that, I suppose I could look at this as an excellent opportunity for me to go out and make a lot of money advising clients about how to manage all of these options. That might be good for me (and hopefully for my clients), but it doesn’t help the ecosystem all that much.

Another chestnut that we hear a lot is “Well, millennial want something different, so…” This is a weird one to me. Sure, younger people may be different, but remember we’re all special flowers, right? People entering the workplace don’t know how to do things in the workplace yet. Simply catering to them – it certainly didn’t happen back when I started working – will just water down effective work styles developed over years. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of work methods are just plain dumb and should be questions, but mindfully and not just because the kids don’t like them.

When I look at the graph below from Avanade, I see some really interesting information. But I also see that many people I know in my generation (I’m a Baby Boomer!)  must be doing things wrong; we don’t act like the stats. I also know millennials who don’t act like millennials. And my son isn’t just like his Gen Z group, either. When I interact with any of these groups, I need to adapt my methods based on what will work at the time, not just what *I* like.

Statistics like this are absolutely useful, but you need to understand your own organization to know what will work. If it’s an organization with lots of closed offices and hierarchy, it’s different from one with an open office plan and a lot of cross-functional work. Age usually has little impact on those constructs. So when you think about what will work for your organization, wouldn’t it be great to have some sort of framework from which to make decisions? A sort of “portfolio management” approach?

I’m reminded of the great work Sadie Van Buren (@sadalit) did a few years ago on her SharePoint Maturity Model. It gave people some very clear ways to think about where they were on the spectrum of success with the platform. The model is a little dusty at this point, but it still makes a lot of sense and can help drive decision-making. (If you check it out and think it’s still useful, please let Sadie or me know. I think it needs a renaissance for Office 365!)

So how can Microsoft un-confuse me, and by extension many of you? Well, I think they need to put their internal politics aside and draw some lines in the sand. For example, regardless how you feel about it, Yammer is good for interactions that require external users because many of the other options don’t provide that capability. A simple statement like that can make some decisions pretty simple: You need external users; you need Yammer. QED. But you rarely see Microsoft making such a clear statement.

Here’s hoping that the smart people in Redmond get on this soon. As the options keep piling up on us, it’s only getting harder to choose. If I were a betting man, I’d pick some winners and loser in this game, too. Knowing what makes sense for specific use cases would reduce risk for organizations who need to make choices and stick with them. Change in most organizations is hard – and expensive. Making good decisions based on good guidance up front makes those changes far more palatable.


nb: I”m publishing this from the plane on the way to Microsoft MVP Summit. It’s best to get this off my chest before I get all jazzed up this week! Maybe I’ll be able to convince some people about this stuff while I’m there.

 

Collaboration is About Behavior, Not Software

Supriyo B “SB” Chatterjee (@sbc111) shared an excellent article on SPYam last night from Adi Gaskell’s (@adigaskell) blog.

In the article, Adi says:

If only it was that simple. The reality is often very different however. The reality is often that most organisations are not collaborative at the moment. Employee behaviour has been ingrained through years of reinforcement, that salary and promotion are intrinsically linked to individual performance.

Changing behaviours at work requires changing the environment that surrounds people when they’re at work.

Image from Adi’s post

Big thumbs up on this one. Collaboration is a result of a culture that encourages it; culture is a sum of the individuals in the group. Most organizations tie their incentives to things that actually discourage collaboration (stack ranking, anyone?). We can implement every system in the world and people who aren’t encouraged to collaborate, won’t. This is one of SharePoint’s dirty secrets: it can’t solve anything that people don’t truly want to solve.

One of my biggest beefs with most SharePoint installations is the strong desire for workflows. We don’t do workflows for ourselves (generally), we do them *to* others. Collaboration isn’t something we force; it must be a natural step in the work process. By putting too much rigor around work, we end up discouraging collaboration. We’ve removed the back currents and eddies in the flow where serendipitous collaboration can occur. Note: I have no beef with workflows for highly repetitive, non- value add tasks, like submitting expense receipts or approving a document. If there’s any room there for collaboration, please tell me about it.

This is nothing new. The knowledge management movement in the mid-nineties suffered from similar constraints. We’re still outgrowing the command-and-control structures that were so successful in the 1950s. Those militaristic management styles work pretty well in manufacturing or assembly work, where consistent unit production is the goal. With knowledge work, there are many intangible work products like effective meetings, project management (not project measurement, which is often the tacit goal), or effective content generation.

So if you or anyone you know think that installing some software will change your company’s ability to collaborate, think again. It’s going to be a very long haul for you with a lot of wasted time and money unless you focus on the underlying incentives and motivations at the same time – or even ahead of time. That starts with the people at the top and trickles right on down. “Thou shalt collaborate” is a death knell for the very goal it espouses. “Let’s talk about how we can encourage collaboration” is oh-so-much better.

<UPDATE date=”2013-09-03″>

Pankaj Taneja wrote another take on this in his post The 3 Pillars of Collaboration, which I culled from the comments on Adi’s post.

To me, policies are good as fall backs in case of issues and can set the tone for how collaboration might work, but too many constraints quash collaboration.

I would disagree that “[a]mbiguity is the greatest enemy of collaboration”. Ambiguity is a given in life. Collaboration happens where and when it makes sense, as long as we don’t prevent it. That prevention can come from the way we implement technologies or structure incentives, but it can also be caused by an abundance of policy. A certain amount of undefined leeway is crucial to good collaboration, and that requires trust, not rules.

</UPDATE>

What Should Microsoft Do for the SharePoint Community – My Opinions

This post was cross-posted on NothingButSharePoint.com on 23 November, 2010.


As with so many things these days, this post started off in a conversation on Twitter. Eric Ligman, Microsoft Global Partner Experience Lead, tweeted a question: “What would you like to see from #Microsoft from a social networking/community perspective? #socialmedia #mspartner“. Here’s the conversation from Twitter:

http://twitter.com/#!/EricLigman/status/4519662494679041

http://twitter.com/#!/sympmarc/status/4521458227220481

http://twitter.com/#!/EricLigman/status/4524540445073409

http://twitter.com/#!/sympmarc/status/4522333704294401

http://twitter.com/#!/EricLigman/status/4525945939558400

http://twitter.com/#!/sympmarc/status/4525599607492609

I realize that Eric’s question was about communities around *any* of Microsoft’s products, but what I know is the SharePoint community. I’m betting that it’s as much of standout in the technical community spectrum for Microsoft as it is against just about any technical community out there.

As I mentioned above, the SharePoint community is alive and well, thank you very much. Through the herculean efforts of people like Michael Lotter (the king of SharePoint Saturdays) and Mark Miller, Jeremy Thake, and Joel Oleson (the kings of SharePoint online communities), and a band of others, the ball got rolling.  After those early cultivators of the community started things off, it seems like the community just keeps growing. Of course there are those who enter the stream to try to make a quick buck off SharePoint as the latest new big thing, but the vast majority of the SharePoint community kicks in their time, knowledge, and effort for free or very little.  This is something which makes the SharePoint community so unique.

It’s been said ad nauseum, but the SharePoint community *really* is unique. I’ve been in technology for almost 30 years now and I have never seen such a giving, thoughtful community built around a technology platform. I often wonder if this is more due to the technologies available to support things (20 years ago we wouldn’t have even had a way to identify the others in our field, much less collaborate with them regularly) or the domain itself. I think it’s probably the confluence of the two: passion for collaboration supported by the best collaborative technologies that have ever existed. I’m not just talking about SharePoint here; it’s just one of the threads in the amazingly vibrant social and collaborative technology fabric which we all use every single day.

So, what do I think that Microsoft should do in the SharePoint community space?

Be Aware

For gosh sakes, know what the community is doing. I was at a Microsoft-sponsored event a while back and it flabbergasted me that we had to explain to marketing folks in the Office division how SharePoint Saturdays worked and how the SharePoint community uses Twitter. Microsoft needs to know all that is going on and participate mindfully. Know what we are up to and learn the lingo and the names. Get to know us, even those of us who aren’t MVPs. Many of us don’t do this for things like MVP badges, but for the community itself and the rewards we get from participating, as intangible as they may be. Think about what we are doing and why. Let us know what you see us doing that seems good or bad and why. Keep the channels open. 

Be Respectful

Yes, the community is alive and well, and to a large degree that has been without much help from Microsoft. So respect what has happened around SharePoint and don’t meddle without very carefully considering each act. We don’t just need a bunch of money and a herd of Softies showing up at all of the events. But the events are fun, mind-bogglingly valuable and informative, and might benefit from a little Softie TLC and mind share.

Understand how much time many of us put into the community. Think about the fact that the reward structures (the MVP program for one) that you offer to the propeller head geeks (That’s not a put down, BTW. I’m a closet propeller head.) don’t really work for everyone in the SharePoint space. There are also a lot of *very* good small shops out there who work with SharePoint who don’t necessarily get much from things like the Partner Program. That’s OK, frankly, but we’re not just going to sell software seats for you (which *sometimes* seems like the overarching motivation for you). We’re going to help make people think about Microsoft differently, one project at a time, but also one conversation at a time.

We’re in this not just for the technology, but for how this stuff can fundamentally change work as we know it. We see potential far beyond documents in lists and social networking. We see a greater whole which transcends SharePoint itself. (OK. I’m getting a little ridiculously hyperbolic here, but I’m not kidding, really.)

Be Supportive

Yes, that may mean a little money. But it also means continuing to let us use Microsoft facilities for SharePoint Saturdays. It may also mean being there at SharePoint Saturdays to show that you know about them and understand the value. It may mean tossing the community leaders a few bones every once in a while, and that may be very simple stuff like mentions in articles or invitations to cool events. Different rewards work for different people. If you get to know us, you’ll figure out what those might be. Acknowledge what we do and the difference it makes to you. Help us when we ask for help, whether it be on a particularly thorny technical issue, or when we point out problems with your documentation, or when we ask for new ways to work with you.

Summary

If there’s one message I’d say is the take away for Microsoft in all of this, it’s “Don’t screw this up”. We’ve got a great thing going here. We may not all get rich, but we’re doing good work and making a difference.  The SharePoint community is the glue that hold it all together.