When the pandemic and lockdown hit, video collaboration became popular, and by July 2020, it was pretty much old news for many enterprises. Beyond that, CIOs focused on how their companies did business when human interactions overall had to be minimized. By October, they realized that even when the lockdowns ended, things weren’t going back to the way they were before. And by January 2021, they were budgeting and planning for that future.
Vendors have generally been slow to realize what was going on, and in February of this year, over half the enterprises who wanted to transform for the post-COVID-19 way of work were finding tools were limited. To get what they wanted, they had to cobble things together on their own, something that enterprises have been increasingly uncomfortable doing because of integration costs and finger-pointing potential. Microsoft, though, seems to have a handle on things with Teams.
It’s tempting to see Teams as just another form of collaboration, a kind of late-coming Zoom competitor, but that’s clearly not what Microsoft sees or intends. The key to their vision of Teams is Viva
, the addition that provides an “employee experience platform.” This isn’t the first attempt by vendors to create a collaborative framework rather than just show everyone’s face (or those willing to show it!), but 2021 may be the right time.
There are four main pieces to Viva: Connections, Insights, Learning, and Topics. These offer team building, expertise-sharing, education, and what’s essentially a dynamic reference library. Viva is built around Office 365 and other Microsoft collaborative tools and includes/integrates with Teams and SharePoint. Thus, it’s a kind of organizer of things more than a totally new approach. Overall, Viva makes Teams into a collaborative ecosystem, a direction it was already taking with its Power Apps additions and recent (available around March 2021) expansion of meeting/webinar experiences and AI integration via Teams Pro.
I think that Viva Topics is the centerpiece of all of this. It’s designed to organize the content associated with team-based projects and make sense of all that material in the context of project activity. Topics analyzes based on AI to identify related elements of content, curates them, and provides an easy way to find things. Connections manages actual relationships, Learning gets team members up to speed, and Insights facilitates the management of the distributed workplace.
All of this is good, but it does seem to have two related issues according to enterprises. The first, more general, issue is that it seems very employee-focused rather than more broadly “stakeholder” focused, which would make it more useful in customer and partner collaboration. The second, the specific one, is that it doesn’t yet really address what enterprises see as the central need of the post-COVID-19 age, an agile information portal.
Recall that the thing that enterprises learned starting in July 2020, and fleshed out as we’ve moved into 2021, was that everybody was locked down, and human relationships were impacted. Most companies have moved to remote support, online ordering, and supply chain activities that integrated their systems and workers with partners. That’s a problem bigger than Viva.
Enterprises are already working toward a cloud-based portal that could let them assemble information from multiple applications and project it through a customized GUI to almost any employee, customer/prospect, or partner, as role and policies dictate. This effort would seem to overlap some of the connection and information curation goals of Viva, but Microsoft insists that Viva is an employee ecosystem, and so Viva couldn’t be extended in its current form to other stakeholders.
Microsoft makes it clear that they don’t believe the changes COVID-19 wrought are going away any time soon and believe that the Viva approach is something beneficial for every company. It seems to me that it would follow that these teams and projects would eventually have to be connected with the external stakeholders in a business and that all human activity relating to the company’s business would have to come under the umbrella of Viva, or something that extends from it.
It also seems to me that Viva needs to have integration hooks for Azure applications. If a Microsoft-centric enterprise uses a public cloud to build those information portals, they’d likely consider Azure, and Microsoft would darn sure want them to. I’ve not seen anything about Azure integration so far.
Let’s look back to my comment on enterprise aversion to a lot of integration in reaching their goal of supporting the new post-COVID-19 world. If enterprises are already seeing a cloud-centric information portal as an essential piece of their strategy, why wouldn’t Microsoft offer them an advanced look at how that broader mission could be supported using Microsoft’s tools?
A big part of the reason may be that expanding Office365-based collaboration to the masses would pose a major security and compliance challenge. Does attending a meeting empower only Microsoft employees, and if not, how do you prevent others from browsing those AI-curated resources? Every external collaboration could easily become an invitation to hacking, so a little caution on Microsoft’s part is understandable.
So, enterprises will have to broadly redefine their relationships with people outside the company, not just within it. Customer support employee empowerment is less useful if you’ve decided you need to do customer support via a portal. Collaboration might automatically make you think “between employees,” but that’s not true now and probably never will be again. We also collaborate through a different and more direct relationship between users and information resources. Microsoft and other vendors in the collaboration space will have to come to terms with that and quickly.