How Microsoft Teams Will Advance Collaboration

I've been a judge for the Best of Enterprise Connect Award program now for several years, and each year it's been very interesting to evaluate the entries and get briefed by finalists on their innovative offerings. This year, there were 38 entries of creative ideas offered up for consideration and vying for a spot among the six finalists.

From my perspective, these original 38 entries comprised seven solution categories (my categorizations, not theirs):

Solution Category Number of Entries
Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) 11
Conferencing Systems or Devices 9
Management Tools and Infrastructure Solutions 6
Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) 5
Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS) 3
User Experience for Audio and Conferencing 3
Mobility-Related Solutions 1

Every one of the entries had some unique and interesting aspects. When evaluated on dimensions such as innovation, scope or reach in the marketplace, relevance to Enterprise Connect 2018 attendees, business value, and cost, six finalists emerged. As described in a No Jitter post, this year's finalists are Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, Plantronics, Polycom, and TTEC.

Each finalist presented their solution in greater depth to the panel of four judges (including myself). Each judge then made their own evaluation and submitted their votes separately. So, this post represents only my own commentary on the Microsoft Teams Best of Enterprise Connect entry.

As you now know, Microsoft Teams is the Best of Enterprise Connect 2018 winner (see "Microsoft Wins Best of Enterprise Connect 2018"). Microsoft's presentation to us judges highlighted a leap forward for Microsoft Teams. Here's what they showed that seems to me to have significantly raised the bar for collaboration and communications workspaces and user experiences.

Initially, it was hard to understand what was different about Teams at this point in time. Was this just an announcement that Skype for Business was being folded into Microsoft Teams? If so, that's just a product evolution that wouldn't warrant a vote for Best of Enterprise Connect, especially since it's going to take almost a year for most of the Skype for Business functionality to be ported into Teams, including the Cloud PBX capabilities.

But a closer look popped the Teams nomination into focus. The version of Microsoft Teams that would be (and now has been) announced at Enterprise Connect is much more than a product evolution. In a phrase, Microsoft is delivering a significantly advanced user experience for the workplace -- desktop and mobile -- that it calls "Microsoft Teams with Intelligent Communications -- The Hub for Teamwork in Office 365."

When all the new features are evaluated and are compared to the collaborative workspace offers of other UC and UCaaS vendors, it's clear that Microsoft has delivered a significantly expanded level of communications-centric capability to support the roles and tasks needed to succeed as a knowledge worker, information worker, or manager of those groups (My firm, UniComm Consulting, refers to these as the Collaboration, Field, Information Processing, Administration and Executive usage profiles). Microsoft Teams can also be used generally for instant messaging, conferencing, and social networking by other groups in the enterprise (Production, Retail, Contact Center and Universal usage profiles), though those users won't likely use all of the Microsoft Teams features.

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This new version of Microsoft Teams goes beyond existing marketplace choices for collaborative workspaces by including the real-time communications tools natively in the collaborative workspace user experience (rather than integrating to a PBX, meeting system, or CPaaS provider) and by providing access to the Office 365 application suite directly in or from the user interface (an adjacency that is not available in other marketplace offers).

Here are the factors that stood out to me as distinctive for this new update to Microsoft Teams, either within the Teams product or in comparison to other offerings:

  • Most comprehensive for the user -- Teams provides a place where the user can do most of their work, with minimal context changes. This includes the expected tools of collaborative workspaces (chat, sharing, attachments, search, multiple project workspaces, calendar, project tracking, etc.) plus communication and meeting tools, telephony tools, editing tools for documents/worksheets/presentations, integration to/from email, et al.

  • Depth of thought about the user's experience -- The solution is capable of anticipating what a user might need while doing their job and builds those resources into the interface, often with automation. For the most part, the logical set of tools show up in the interface depending on what's being done.
  • Innovations included in the package -- There are many new and different capabilities included in Teams, not as add-ons. These include commands to invoke advanced capabilities such as finding available team members or finding assigned tasks, auto-prompting for creating relevant tasks in the implied workflow, AI tools that watch the workflow for suggestions or optimizations, analytics of the user's and the team's activities, speech interface via Cortana, and language translation. All of these are automatically updated, and new functions may be added via the Office 365 cloud.
  • The Microsoft ecosystem -- As is commonly discussed, the Microsoft ecosystem can be both a strength, since Microsoft's partners can add value, and a weakness, since partners can complicate implementation and management. But in this case, the needle points towards strength. The capabilities announced at EC18 include a device ecosystem with Teams running on desk IP phones, Apple iOS and Android devices, Chrome and Edge browsers, and meeting room system integrations. Teams also includes integrations with other application suites, tools for extensibility (a type of CPaaS), and an apps store.
  • Security, management, and metrics -- These are extensions of Office 365 capabilities and are more than what's usually offered by competing cloud collaboration offers, particularly when a capability is new to the market.

In summary, Microsoft Teams with Intelligent Communications seems to be a significant advancement in the workplace user experience, and earned one of my three votes for Best of Enterprise Connect 2018. Based on the results of the award program, I was not alone in my assessment.

Feedback and commentary are welcome.

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