Why the power of Office Graph and Delve frightened some Ignite attendees

Why the power of Office Graph and Delve frightened some Ignite attendees

I've been covering Office Delve since its release to Office 365 tenants last September and enjoyed watching how the application has evolved and learning the power of the underlying Office Graph technology. It's true that the technology has been through some ups and downs that I charted last February, especially in how it deals with email attachments stored in Exchange Online mailboxes, but the net is that Delve is a pretty interesting new take on liberating information held in the silos that exist in so many large organizations.

Delve depends on the Office Graph database and uses the Office Graph API to interpret the information stored in the database. In itself, Delve could be considered to be a pretty front end to the Graph, but that's not reasonable nor accurate because there's a lot of intelligence built into Delve to take raw Graph data and present it in a fashion that makes sense to humans. Raw information is OK but it's much better when put in context and presented in a manner that allows people to use the information to work smarter.

Some find it a little creepy that the Office Graph database collects so many signals from across Office 365 to track the interaction and activity of users as they work with their peers and colleagues. I think it's reasonable to consider how this information should be used for a positive purpose. I also think that Microsoft has work to do to allow customers to have more control over the Office Graph. For example, many European customers have expressed concern at the volume and scope of the activities logged by Office Graph and would like the ability to disable collection of some signals.

Legislation in many European countries is careful to protect the privacy of individuals and the notion that the Office Graph might be used to reveal how someone works is sufficient to cause apoplexy for unions. In particular, Julia White's demo of Delve analytics shown at Monday's Ignite keynote that revealed insights such as an individual's work-life balance or the percentage of the working week that they spend at meetings will no doubt be the cause of some interesting discussions when Delve is introduced into some European companies. After all, if Delve surfaces information for an individual by using the Graph API to interrogate the Office Graph, what's to stop someone querying the Office Graph in some more intrusive fashion?

In any case, Microsoft did their level best to reassure attendees at Ignite that the Office Graph is not the equivalent of PRISM for Office 365. They emphasized that the Graph is an intelligent fabric that applications such as Delve can leverage to provide new insights into how people work and collaborate and that no information is ever revealed except when users have explicit permissions to view that data.

I totally accept Microsoft’s assertion and believe that Delve is extremely careful about how it exposes information, but the problem is not with Delve. Instead, it’s in the mass of convoluted permissions that has accrued inside many corporate IT infrastructures over the years. People generally are not very good at planning and assigning permissions. As long as access works when required, it’s OK and everyone gets on with their job. The result is that no one really knows who has permission to view what and whether those permissions are required or not.

So when Delve comes along to expose a set of the most relevant information it things should be shown to a user, that set could include some “interesting” results. Remember, Delve is simply interpreting and respecting the permissions set on document libraries and OneDrive sites. If something pops up and is viewed by someone who shouldn’t see that information, the problem lies in the permissions on that library or site and not with Delve.

Delve will soon be able to expose on-premises documents when SharePoint 2016 provides a hybrid connector to enable metadata from on-premises libraries to Office Graph. Even though Exchange has had hybrid connectivity with Office 365 for some years, that connector is designed to enable a unified view of an on-premises/cloud Exchange organization and doesn’t transit metadata about attachments stored in user inboxes to Office Graph. Without that data, Office Graph remains blissfully unaware of any email attachments unless they land in Exchange Online mailboxes, in which case they can surface in the Delve view for those users.

Given comments from multiple Microsoft speakers, there is absolutely no chance that an on-premises version of Delve will appear anytime soon. The amount of computing resources required to power the Office Graph and Delve and the complex interconnections between the Office Graph and the applications from where signals are harvested are currently far too difficult to package in a consumable format for on-premises customers. In addition, the machine learning algorithms powering the Office Graph are tweaked on an ongoing basis, something that would require something like a “Windows Update for Office Graph” kind of distribution channel.

In other news from Ignite, Microsoft announced the availability of new Delve mobile apps are available for Android and iPhone. The Windows Phone version is due soon. However, the apps are not yet available in all countries.

There’s no doubt that Delve is evolving fast. It’s a terrifically interesting area that exposes challenges for Microsoft and customers alike. Weaving an intelligent fabric from signals generated by the interactions that happen inside large organizations is not easy. The integrated nature of Office 365 makes life easier for the Delve developers, but some more control is required to make people who fear that Delve represents a form of big brother oversight is nothing to be frightened about.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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