Reflections on Microsoft Loop

This week is Microsoft Ignite. As many followers of this blog know I usually look forward to the insights that Microsoft Ignite brings into the roadmap for the key collaboration tools in the Office365 stack. This week I was looking forward to updates on Microsoft Teams, Yammer and the evolution of Microsoft Viva, the new employee experience platform that is absorbing many of Yammer’s capabilities and bringing them to the enterprise in new ways. Intriguingly, much of the early discussion coming out of Ignite is on the announcements related to the new Microsoft Loop.

Loops. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What is Microsoft Loop?

Microsoft Loop is a new collaboration canvas tool that also offers modules that can be carried across the Office ecosystem to enable synchronised collaboration in the flow of work. Building of work on Microsoft Fluid, the new product similarly combines components, pages and workspaces that can be brought together or spread apart, remixed, personalised, and still all keep in synch as other contribute using the magic of the stack. This flexibility comes from the vision of Microsoft Loop as an ‘atomic collaboration app’. These various components will begin to roll out into Microsoft Teams, One Note and Outlook. We can expect further evolution in this space over time including integration into many other Office apps.

The initial response of the market has been mixed as always with a Microsoft launch (more why this happens in a minute). On the positive front, many people are excited that the work on Fluid is coming to fruition. The next big thing in productivity and collaboration is much needed now as we address the new challenges of digital work and the extent to which traditional document centric or meeting centric models have limitations. There is undoubted power in the collaboration canvas model. Loop has been much compared to Notion, but the pandemic has seen tools like Miro and other collaborative canvases expand rapidly. Even Canva the design toolset is promoting its team collaboration capabilities. As we increasingly work from the one-person silos of home, seamless, liberating and powerful collaboration is the next horizon of potential. We have so many more demands to work together virtually now, perhaps it is time for a richer toolset.

I have always argued that the potential is exponential, if collaboration can be enabled across our work in organisations. This is why I have been a passionate explorer of the history of tools in this space including Lotus Notes, Groove, Google Wave, Google Suite, Yammer in all its various incarnations, Slack, Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams and many more. Each generation of this capability has moved us forward to a more seamless flow of work and richer more diverse set of collaborative use cases. This diversity and richness is needed because we don’t do one thing in one way with everyone at work. We do lots of different things with different people at different times and for different goals to connect, share, solve and innovate. That’s why there needs to be a richness of modes of collaboration and that’s why Microsoft Loop is coming with new flexibility.

The Downside of Innovation in the Microsoft Ecosystem

I really feel for the product managers who bring new products and features to market in the Microsoft ecosystem. Sure life is easier when you are working for an corporation that can tackle visionary change and invest for decades in the next big thing in collaboration, acquiring new ideas and talents along the way. How exciting to deploy your new ideas to a global potential user base in the millions with all the greatest corporations already your customers.

However, that scale and the richness of the existing Microsoft stack brings its own pain. The negative feedback on Loop has been predictably from some of those most close to and most passionate about Microsoft. This feedback follows patterns that Yammer and Microsoft Teams have had to encounter in due course. This feedback goes along these lines:

  • You have been talking about this for a while why isn’t it here now complete in its final state – some people haven’t yet adjusted to software as a service business models and that market use by customers will shape the evolution of a product like this. We can’t expect product teams to predict every need.
  • Why doesn’t it integrate with everything everywhere in every use case immediately? – As above, minimum products grow with additional investment to reach the richness of the current major Microsoft applications.
  • This adds to the complexity of collaboration. I can’t abandon Outlook/Teams/Yammer and use only one thing. – collaboration is complex and what’s with the ‘one app to rule them all’ obsession. Many who have been placing their one things hopes on Microsoft Teams see this as a crack in the single pane of glass. Sure one app in one box looks good on an architectural diagram or a ‘what to use when’ chart but it doesn’t reflect how we work.
  • Useless. I can’t role this out to my global employee base today for every use case. – yes, but you can explore their needs and find the use cases where this fits to the detriment of all the other micro apps that your team wants because they are trendy.
  • Sounds complex. It will require adoption work. I’ll stick with Outlook Distribution Lists for collaboration – work is complex (and so are your employees) which means collaboration can’t be a one size fits all challenge. Collaboration is about the breadth of ways your organisation connects, shares, solves and innovates. That’s going to demand some agility and flexibility and even, dare I say it, user adoption and use case configuration
  • I didn’t ask for this. Why didn’t you build my request for X instead? – not every customer is alike.

The familiarity of these complaints is a reminder that with scale comes a legacy, an installed base and expectations. If someone had deployed Microsoft Loop outside of Microsoft as a standalone app, it wouldn’t be judged to this standard. Limited launch capabilities would be the expectation. Users would be asking for integration with Outlook, Teams and so on. The independent Loop would respond with a wave of the hand and suggest a future product roadmap.

Judge Microsoft Loop by the Work. Trust the humans to decide.

As noted above, the potential of new model of collaboration has been a long-hyped thing. Atomic collaboration is just the latest variation from all in one apps, to real-time synchronisation, to document collaboration, to collaboration on the graph, in the workspace, in the channel or on a single pane of glass. Whether atomic collaboration blows everything else away will be determined in user’s hands. For that to happen, it will come down to the value that it delivers to do work better, faster, safer and easier.

Most new collaboration apps fail because they get the model of work wrong. The engineers of these apps often work out from “What can we build, what might people do and where can we deploy it?” Sadly, that produces outcomes that are a world away from “What are users trying to achieve and what do you actually need to work together better in a real human way?” Finding new ways to enable collaboration in the flow of work demands a deep understanding of work and what employees and the collaborators are seeking to achieve.

Often these apps fail because they ask for changes in use case or work metaphor that are too unfamiliar to users and the bridge to the future is too great for adoption. We mostly understand document storage, document collaboration, meetings, calls and team chat as forum for collaboration, but we are always learning new and better ways to do each. These are not the only formats of collaboration, they are just the most obvious ones. Tools like Miro challenge us to consider collaboration at the whiteboard, with sticky notes and in a workshop. Each new tool opens up a wider array of opportunities for us.

New models require users to learn new patterns of work and to see the value to them and the organisation. The latter is why so many still query the value of enterprise collaboration in Yammer – talking to an unknown anyone hidden in everyone in the organisation to support work through connecting, sharing, solving or innovating is still not in everyone’s paradigm of work.

Creating the future patterns for connecting, sharing, solving and innovating together using Microsoft Loop will be the outcome of the interplay between the champions and change agents in organisations looking for better ways of working and the Microsoft product team who keeps up the innovations to support the growth of the product. At the same time, the flexibility will inspire others in the market. The challenge always is avoiding choice paralysis from too many options and too much complexity but this early in the product lifecycle, let the humans decide what works best. I can’t wait to give it a try and see what new capabilities it brings to my work.

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