Email and the evolving state of Office 365 collaboration features

Email and the evolving state of Office 365 collaboration features

Reading the Forbes.com report describing how Thierry Breton, the Chairman and CEO of Atos has been attempting to eradicate email when it comes to internal communication and collaboration, some thoughts on how email fits into the collaboration spectrum came to mind, specifically in respect to the Atos experience (as reported).

First, my experience is that management is by far the source of most internal email. By this, I mean circulars, business updates, messages of encouragement, and all the other bumf that generally meanders through corporate email servers. The constant need to inform staff about everything and anything is something that managers could and should restrict so that the information flow is timely, pertinent, and accurate.

Next, a lot of other email is generated by applications. It was a good thing when programmers discovered how easy it was to connect to a friendly SMTP mail server to send email on behalf of an application. And indeed, users found it helpful to be notified when certain things happened, such as the approval of a travel request. Some applications are now email-verbose and insist on generating notifications at each step of a process, no matter how small or insignificant that step might be. Paying attention to what applications generate email and why they generate those messages is one way to reduce email within an organization.

Third, I noted that 18% of the email received by Atos users was spam. This is an incredible amount and it makes you wonder what kind of mail hygiene defences are in place to cleanse the inbound mail stream of spam and viruses. Unless, of course, users consider management missives to be spam.

On the surface, the Atos initiative appears to have succeeded in reducing the number of messages received daily by employees from 100 to 40. I wonder attention to the points made above would have helped to achieve their goal.

I also wonder whether the desire to reduce email was matched by an equal desire to utilize the investment made in the “blueKiwi” collaboration platform. This is a product developed and sold by Atos and it is reasonable to expect that Atos should be the poster child for its use and the source of success stories. The story is absolutely right when it relates that changing the company culture from email to a different mode of collaboration required executive leadership and a big investment in time, but I wonder would the same decision had been taken if Atos was not trying to sell a collaboration platform to other companies?

Don’t get me wrong. I like collaboration products as much as anyone else and have fond memories of the successful VAX Notes network that assisted so many employees at Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1980s and 1990s. And I am becoming more acquainted with the Yammer network operated by Microsoft to help IT Pros work with Office 365 (including groups for Exchange, the other Office servers, and emerging technology like Delve). It's a valuable resource that is worth checking out.

Which brings me to contemplate the somewhat confused (at least in my mind) state of Microsoft “enterprise social.” I see lots of good things happening, much promise and potential, but perhaps also a struggle to figure out just what solution works best for many customers. It’s probably impossible to build a single solution that fits all needs and what I think is happening now is that Microsoft is in the middle of dealing with its heritage (the installed base and some acquisitions) while it tries to forge a new path to a more integrated future. Much of that work is being done under the Office 365 brand because it is easier to deliver evolving technology to customers through the cloud.

Yammer is bundled with the enterprise Office 365 plans and can be deployed by companies who want to investigate the use of enterprise social technology (“work-time Facebook”). It still has some rough edges that I don’t care for but is becoming better integrated with the other Office servers. Yammer is not something to rush into – like most things, some planning pays big benefits. Office 365 users will have a choice of tools as Microsoft is busily rolling out “Groups” as an option to host team-based discussions. The line between Groups and Yammer remains blurry for the moment.

Groups seem awfully like the site mailboxes introduced in Exchange 2013 with the difference being the interface with Outlook Web App (OWA) used rather than Outlook 2013. Under the cover, mailboxes and calendars remain based on Exchange and operate like shared mailboxes, while the shared “files” functionality is provided by OneDrive for Business instead of SharePoint document libraries. OneDrive for Business is based on SharePoint too.

OWA doesn’t have to synchronize anything between Exchange and SharePoint to present the UI for Groups so the connectivity between Exchange and SharePoint is easier than it is for site mailboxes and you avoid all the nasty issues that can occur when multiple clients attempt to share a common view on changing data. All OWA has to do is to access and display the appropriate web page to get to the requested data, be it a mailbox folder, calendar, or files. Using OWA rather than Outlook allows for more rapid innovation and also allows the solution to run on mobile platforms via OWA for Devices.

Interestingly, Alfons Staerk of Microsoft, who led the development of site mailboxes for Exchange 2013, told participants in a "Groups YamJam" (I hate that term) that "for new scenarios and usage we recommend to use groups instead of site mailboxes."  I haven't quite figured out whether this is notice that site mailboxes are due for the scrapheap soon, but it seems clear that much more focus is on Groups today. This isn't altogether surprising given a) the relative lack of interest in site mailboxes and b) Groups is more of a cross-Office 365 play combining Exchange, SharePoint, Yammer, OneDrive for Business, and so on.

Groups deliver the kind of functionality that Exchange public folders should have evolved to provide many years ago – many customers who use public folders do so to share messages, calendars, and files, so there seems to be a lot of commonality. Except of course that OWA now provides a nice shiny interface for Groups whereas the UI for public folders has always been sparse.

For those interesting, Microsoft has a page outlining their current view on collaboration within Office 365.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft brings these strands together over the next year or so. In the interim, I think it fair to say that no single tool can deliver a magic bullet to improve internal communications or make people want to share information better than they do today. These are applications, just like email, and the success or failure of any tool will depend on how well its use is communicated to users (so they see a purpose in using the tool rather than being just another web site to look at), alignment with business purposes (solve business issues rather than discuss beer or outside interests), and outcomes (better customer service, faster time to market, more innovation, and so on). All wrapped up with some dynamic leadership at the executive level to spread the word about its use.

Email persists and survives even inside companies that think it should be eradicated and replaced by better collaborative tools. Maybe it’s because email is easy to use and embedded in many other areas of our lives or maybe it’s because at the end of the day, email really is the best tool for person-to-person communication.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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