Despite laying the groundwork for social computing in SharePoint 2010, Microsoft has pretty much left social to such third-party vendors as NewsGator and harmon.ie and others to figure out how to make SharePoint more friendly to end users in this Facebook-influenced world. But a recent flurry of interviews by Jared Spataro, Microsoft's Senior Director, SharePoint Product Management, touching on SharePoint and social computing, leaves industry watchers trying to connect the dots.
At the least, the picture emerging is one of Microsoft "realizing" that it's time to get into social computing. Whether this realization will be accompanied by Microsoft following its historical pattern of acquiring a company or two with the skills and technology it needs remains to be seen. Perhaps it's enough today to say that in the area of social computing and SharePoint, Microsoft has awakened and is poised to flex its muscles.
So what has "awakened" Microsoft? You can't ignore the Forester figure Spataro quoted when I spoke with him, that by 2016, social computing will be a 6.4 billion dollar market. Of course Microsoft would want a piece of the action.
But then there's the Gartner prediction, that during calendar year 2012, 70 percent of IT-led social initiatives will fail to meet their intended objectives. Spataro also mentioned that. Perhaps a 70-percent failure rate has its own up-side to a technology company looking to enter such a market--that is, you can't do much more harm than is already being done. Maybe.
In a survey Microsoft recently conducted, of 200 respondents in organizations with 1,000 or more employees, it found that around 48 percent of respondents said that they were still in a very early pilot phase or limited-user phase with their social initiatives. Only 30 percent had deployed social software really broadly across the organization, Spataro said, "So it was pretty clear to us that there was this opportunity now to start to really engage with customers."
Explaining Microsoft's vision, he added, "By implementing social initiatives correctly, we hope that employees and partners and customers can all start to connect with the people and information they need to get specific tasks done. And we use this idea of social tools that help you actually complete tasks. That's kind of a differentiator for us."
His use of the word "correctly" implies, I think, that Microsoft believes it has waited around long enough to know what social computing technologies work and what fail. And Spataro did speak about the evolution of technology in an industry and how it seems to reach a level of where certain choices made seem to become the defacto "correct" ones after a while.
"You see in these new areas, and social has been one, where there have been some standalone smaller companies who have gone out and over the last couple of years focused on an area and really developed some innovation. When you start to get what I would call dominant design in the trends, you kind of know what it's going to look like. That makes it easy for [us] to say 'hey, now's the right time, in the evolution of the industry, for us to go ahead and bring some of those capabilities right into the platform, into the product itself.' Some of these services out there, they have found that dominant design when it comes to activity feeds, and likes, and what people expect." Spataro singled out NewsGator as an example.
Yet in spite of the innovation in social computing, Spataro reported that respondents to the survey named more "traditional" forms of social computing when Microsoft asked them what top three elements they most wanted in social networks: IM, email, and video conferencing, in that order. The ability to follow people, documents, or sites, while desirable, came in fourth.
What this means, Spataro said, is that people want a connected experience. "The idea of a connected experience to us is that most people don't want yet another Inbox in a social feed when you implement a social solution. But they like what social can deliver to them and want to see that connected to all the other ways they can communicate--again, email or video conferencing or even instant messaging."
Another realization for Microsoft, Spataro said, "is that as we go further down the list of what people are looking for from social, they do cite activity streams, the ability to like content or people, and things like micro-blogging. In addition to the real-time and asynchronous communications that people already have, they like this idea that there's something new that's coming out of social." That something new, he said, is what Microsoft labels "serendipity."
"It's this idea that I happen to be in San Francisco today, and that when I post that through a very simple activity post, people ... whom I normally wouldn't tell that information to, can start to connect some dots, and say 'hey, I have a customer in San Francisco or I have some work that's happening there too and maybe you could get involved.' It's that serendipity that creates real business value because people can get more accomplished."
So we have these wonderful notions of connected experience and serendipity. Does the greater attention paid to social and SharePoint speak to the maturity of SharePoint now as a Microsoft product or does it speak more to the growing intersection of consumer and business demands?
"I think it speaks to both," Spataro said. "SharePoint has had this tremendous run, really, based on this business plan of six servers in one. That's what the first 10 years of SharePoint were all about. The next 10 years of SharePoint, when we look at that aspect of the business plan, we say 'wow, we've got these tremendous assets now, how can we make sure that we polish, that we smooth the edges, that we make sure that there aren't seams between the various components? How can we make sure that we're really focused on what people are trying to do and that from beginning to end we're making it easy for them to get those things done?' I think that's really a harbinger of things to come from SharePoint."
And now, because this is Microsoft after all, comes another aspect of the social computing vision: the need for a connected platform. The connected platform, of course, already exists, and does so, in part, to help Microsoft address such things as integration and security. Which were the top concerns respondents had with social computing, as noted in Microsoft's survey, Spataro said:
· Security--88 percent of business decision makers and 91 percent of IT decision makers cited this as their top concern
· Integration--66 percent of decision makers cited concerns with how social plugged in with existing systems
· Compliance--53 percent of decision makers said compliance was a big concern with social computing
"And so this idea that security, integration, and compliance were important really point to the concept of a platform that allows you not only to offer an experience but then to make sure that experience is what you need it to be. This plays pretty naturally with the way we have positioned things like SharePoint," Spataro said.
One platform to rule them all. Or, even better, a connected platform that's managed by Microsoft, in the cloud? Old news, that. Or is it.