Frenetic pace of change continues in Office 365

Frenetic pace of change continues in Office 365

Much as I like Microsoft technology, I sometimes wonder what particular brand of Kool-Aid is distributed to their spokespeople. What, for example, moved them to believe that hyping up the fact that over the past year, Microsoft “released over 450 updates to Office 365” would be an inspiring message to the customers who have to cope with such a  volume of change?

I understand why some people think that it’s fantastic that “evergreen” software like Office 365 is developing at such a rapid clip. The sheer number of changes is testimony to the massive engineering resources that Microsoft has committed to the transition from on-premises to cloud platforms and to maintain technical advantages over their competitors. Maintaining a heavy flow of new features sure makes good reading, at least on PowerPoint slides.

My issue is that despite years of practice, Microsoft has still not mastered the art of managing change within Office 365. It might be acceptable to have so much change in the system if all the updates were clearly flagged to customers and introduced in a way that was easily manageable by tenants, but that’s not the case. The Office 365 Roadmap has not included all the changes that have been implemented in the last year, some software doesn’t support the ability to selectively deploy First Release updates to selected users, and often change that is very visible to end users is dropped into use without much warning. The recent decision to attempt to rebrand Outlook Web App alongside many user interface and feature enhancements is a good example. At the other end of the scale, the process used to remove People View from Office 365 was curious, to say the least.

It is natural for engineers and product managers to want to see the result of their work in use as soon as possible. It’s also natural to want to know what people think of new features so that their input can be used to improve software. And to be fair to Microsoft, I think Delve and Clutter are good examples of new Office 365 features that were introduced in pretty rough shape and have been significantly improved since. Office 365 Groups have been updated a lot too, but still have a way to go in the opinion of some observers. The incomplete and flawed integration with Power BI is an example of a change rushed into production that should have waited until it was bulletproof.

But I doubt that many of the engineers and product managers have ever attempted to manage and support the roll-out of new technology to a large group of users. If they have, then they’ve clearly forgotten all the lessons learned. End users generally find it difficult to handle change. Having to deal with two changes per business day is even difficult for technologists to track and understand. Think about what it must be like for the average end user!

Arguing against myself, it is possible that many end users are simply unaware that the ground is shifting beneath their feet because clients insulate them from the effect. If you use Outlook Web App, you know all about change in Office 365 because the user interface is in a constant state of flux. On the other hand, if you use Outlook 2010 or Outlook 2013, you wouldn’t see any difference over the last year because the features introduced in that time are invisible to those clients. It’s different for mobile clients in one sense as frequent updates is the norm, but new features like Office 365 Groups and Delve can only show up when they are supported by client protocols or new apps are provided.

It might also be true that Microsoft is forcing the pace of change now when the vast bulk of Office 365 tenants are small to medium businesses and are less sensitive to upheaval caused by software updates than large enterprises. Perhaps the cadence will slow as large companies move more workload to Office 365. We’ll see.

I think Microsoft has a way to go to manage change effectively within Office 365. The roadmap is a good tool and it provides much valuable information but it’s obvious that people don’t review its contents as often as they need in order to keep informed about what’s changing. Then again, people have other work to do than to track Office 365 updates. What's weird is that the roadmap page currently lists 111 updates in total (21 launched, 31 rolling out, 57 in development, and 2 canceled). That doesn't quite match the >450 changes trumpeted by Microsoft.

The Admin App is getting better all the time but it’s not a way to track changes either – and whatever Microsoft might think, my experience is that hard-pressed administrators only go to the Office 365 message center when they absolutely have to, usually to discover whether an outage is active.

If Microsoft really wants to make life easier for tenant administrators, perhaps they could email a monthly update digest that contains links to details about all the changes that occurred in the last month and all that are scheduled to be deployed into First Release and General Release in the coming month. At least then people couldn’t say that they didn’t know what’s coming – unless Clutter removes the message from view.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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