#MSIgnite Day 1: The Modern Workplace Now

Today was the first day of Microsoft’s Ignite Conference in Orlando, Florida. My focus at this event falls largely within Microsoft’s new Modern Workplace theme in its products. Here’s an overview of my takeaways from the first day.

Not the Future. Now


The rationale for the Modern Workplace strategy for Microsoft is a familiar one. We all have seen the ongoing digital transformation of business. We understand the competitiveness demands of an increasingly global, fast-paced, customer-led and digital marketplace. At the same time we are seeing a shift to a new generation of workers who have grown up with digital technologies as consumers and also bring a stronger set of demands for engaging purposeful work.

The rationale reminds us that new work practices, new work cultures and new work tools is not some abstract future challenge. The future is no longer Mobile-first applications it is AI-first applications, rethinking the product to put data-driven learning and its potential at the core, not process. The Quantum computing discussion from Satya Nadella’s keynote more than stretched our brains with new abstract ideas from maths, physics and computer science that are a few years from every desktop.  The Modern Workplace is our workplaces now. To the extent organisations are not leveraging these technologies to their full there is missed value and missed potential. GE, a traditional leading case study, shared their work on workplace transformation if this point was missed by anyone.

People & Technology


This was not just a Technology showcase. People were a critical part of the dialogue of the day. Julia White asking the audience to see themselves as change agents. Satya Nadella discussed a variety of people themes inspired by Microsoft’s purpose to “empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. Every session echoed with the constant discussion of changing culture and enabling new creative, new value and purpose in work and new teamwork.

We are not creating modern workplaces to sustain the work culture and practices of the last century. We are creating modern workplaces to drive change in culture, transform the nature of work and enable human potential. Even the strong focus on AI and automation that is usual threatened as a way to eliminate the humanity of work was strongly positioned as enhancing human creativity and enablement. The jury is out on that but don’t blame the technology. Humans will chose whether to use it to accelerate the industrial machine model of business of the past or to embrace a new frontier in human potential, tackling massive social and global issues and removing the mundane frustrations so all work has more meaning and value.


Modern Workplace Tools

At the heart of the new approach to the Modern Workplace is a focus on the diverse nature of work and the different patterns of collaboration. Microsoft has been long criticised for its seemingly complex product landscape and overlapping and at times competitive product teams. The new Modern Workplace strategy embraces that complexity as the ability to meet diverse work scenarios. One tool will not rule them all.  Microsoft begins to help customers navigate that landscape through a focus on Microsoft Teams as the inner circle of goal directed work with predictable peers, for your work teams and projects and tools like Yammer as part of an outer circle of work involving unknown connection across the organisation for the benefits of discovery, diversity, inclusion and serendipity.  Teaming and Collaboration have new focus in the digital workplaceIMG_1284.JPGIMG_1285.JPG

Microsoft Teams will be heavily driven as the new platform for the Microsoft365 suite and its deep integration across Office365, Windows10 and more. Teams will begin to encompass the communication tools of Skype for Business and become the go-to hub for the inner circle of work. Email retains an important place in this landscape but so do increasing investments in LinkedIn integration, Bing Search integration, 3D, mixed reality, and analytics to power surprisingly seamless experiences on devices and driven by Cortana. Employees using Teams at Ford to share Virtual 3D designs may be a conceptual demonstration today but it’s clearly not too far ahead. That integration of collaboration & security for defined groups of workers using Teams will be appealing for many organisations dipping there toes in more agile and more collaborative work.

Most reassuring for a speaker at this event on the Digital Transformation potential of Yammer, we saw new investment in Yammer. With its new positioning on the Outer Circle of surprise, discovery, diversity and serendipity of work, comes a reiteration of its value for conversations organisation-wide, in communities and strategic initiatives. As Swoop Analytics research highlights, Yammer is one of the few tools that breaks Prof. Allen’s 50 meter rule – that the majority of interaction is with people within 50 metres. Working Out Loud played a key role in this focus in any discussion of Yammer or the Modern Workplace.


The significant investment in Yammer’s product roadmap belies the doomsayers. This begins with the interactions between Teams and Yammer. There’s new focus on Yammer’s depth of connection with Sharepoint, a great partner in the wider circle of sharing. The roadmap also included specific examples of better analytics, better integration with the Microsoft365 underpinnings, profiles and other apps, better mobile apps, greater breadth of APIs and continuing enhancement of user features like reactions, rich text and more. Most exciting for anyone who is an advocate for the value of community management was a new commitment to the community manager experience in Yammer from roles to access reports, to tools to help manage Yammer posts and groups, and a recommitment to the valuable but long ignored hashtag, a topic in Yammer. The future roadmap also highlights the focus for the next year on Yammer’s role for the whole organisation, communities and initiatives.


My Inner and Outer Circles In Real Life

I came to MS Ignite in large part to connect and reconnect. Today was an extraordinary day of conversation, challenge, learning and fun with collaborators and communities that support and enable my work. Opportunities to learn face to face from a breadth of these two circles makes the experience an intense one. You don’t want to miss a chance to learn and to share.


Lots to Digest. So What?

If you believe work is not changing, email is the only safe interaction pattern, and you won’t have employees soon, I doubt you read to the end of this post. If your views differ in any way, then the challenge for you and your organisation is to consider these questions:

  • Strategy: Do you have a strategy to realise the value of the Modern Workplace for your employees and your organisation? Your competitors are becoming more engaging, more agile, more customer-focused and more innovative organisations now as these tools extend and adoption of new practices is developed. When will you see this potential?
  • Investment: Do you have the investment in people, skills, capabilities, information and change necessary to leverage the potential today and into the future? Too many organisations see workplace, change and community management as peripheral roles. They are enabling all your people and all your work. Invest accordingly
  • Culture: Does your organisation have the culture it needs to be effective in the next few years? Experiments, autonomy, new approaches, new practices, and new work styles need to be embraced now.

Lastly, an abstract mathematical thought for the day: “The square root of anything is more powerful”. Whatever it means, it is a testament to human genius and human potential. When we understand what that means we will have discovered the emergent value opportunity in both circles of the Modern Workplace.


Design the Work

Don’t design workflow for the product features. Design work for the people. Let them improve the process from there.

Features Change

Microsoft MVP Melanie Hohertz, Online Communications Lead of Cargill recently remarked in conversation ‘People need to stop designing workflow in Yammer around product features’. This comment is needs to be more widely understood as it is a key source of frustration for many community managers and their organisations. I am not surprised Melanie would so simply distill the issues vexing community managers with Yammer. Melanie is always insightful about Yammer, based in both her excellent command of the product capabilities but also her expertise in community management.

Cloud software solutions have brought powerful new capability into our organisations. However they have also created havoc with traditional ways of working due to their agile product development methodology.

Processes Don’t Change

The process-centric history of management means we try to turn much of our work into a tightly defined process. Many organisation take agile cloud solutions like Yammer and build their features into tightly structured workflow. This process centric approach doesn’t work.

Yammer’s product development is highly agile. Product features change to a loose roadmap but also as a result of a continuous program of A/B testing. We might wish for greater certainty and transparency, but the agile approach isn’t going to change.

The testing enables Yammer’s product managers to learn from the use of the solution by all their users. Your unique use case of a tightly defined custom workflow won’t fit in this approach. That one workflow is a blip among the way millions of users engage with the tool. Melanie’s insight means that we need to step outside our traditional process-centric view and embrace a people-centric approach.

Collaboration takes Community

The opportunity with collaboration in the future of work is for people to be able to reshape their work. Collaboration is not just a layer over the process. Don’t design a process for the features of the tool. Design around the people, those who do the work. Give them the capability to shape their work. Help them to become more agile and adaptable. Let the people take their work forward from there. People will learn in time to navigate the changing features, adapting them to their needs. The product roadmap matters far less than the creativity and agility of community.

Supported in the right ways, people will improve their work through creating new network connections, sharing information, solving challenges and continuously creating new ways of working. The results will be more agile, more collaborative and more effective.

Algorithms Work Out Loud

Whether we like it or not, working out loud is coming as a work trend. The benefits for productivity, learning and effectiveness from working out loud make greater transparency and connection in our work inevitable. If we do not work out loud, it will be our tools that work out loud for us.

Algorithms Ascendant

If you have any interest in digital trends you will have noted the news that software beat the world’s best Go player 4-1. I’ve played a little Go and even at a much smaller scale than a competition board it is a mind-bendingly tricky game that relies on intuition as well as logic. Software being able to beat a Go master so comprehensively is a significant development because analysts had forecast it could be up to a decade before Go fell. Go is too complex for a simple brute force strategy of computation of possible paths. 

The breakthrough occurred because the Google team developing AlphaGo didn’t just rely on one source of technical expertise or one strategy to beat a Go Master. AlphaGo improved itself by testing multiple strategies in machine learning, specifically learning better models of play each time it watched or played a game of Go.  AlphaGo’s success reflected a key benefit of working out loud – learning through observation and experience of not just one’s own practice but also the practice of other Go algorithms and Go masters.

Algorithmic Insight

Whether we practice working out loud or not, the software around us is already beginning to leverage our work to learn and enhance its effectiveness. Social media sites are all moving to algorithmic display because they can leverage our behaviour and relationships to better meet our needs (& their own business models).  I remember my resistance when Yammer first implemented an algorithmic feed and moved away from following. I thought there was no way that I would value the algorithms choice of messages over my own curation of content through following strategies. These concerns passed quickly in use and it has been a long time since I reflected on the need for a better following model.  Incidentally, Yammer moved to this change as a result of analytics and A/B testing, leveraging the work of thousands of customers to find better ways to build its product.

These algorithms are coming deeper into our work. I recently had a demonstration of Microsoft Office’s Delve and Delve Analytics. My takeaway was here was that I was looking at the potential for algorithms and analytics to turbocharge the value by leveraging a form of passive automation of working out loud. Clearly tools like Delve can help by reducing search, however they can also deliver further benefits for learning, collaboration and business value by helping make working out loud a default practice in the future of work.

Delve offers a key way to address the concerns many critics of working out loud raise. Today working out loud requires an individual to push their work out visibly so that others can pull the work for the purpose of learning or collaboration. That first push upsets some critics as it is seen as contributing to noise, raising the possibility of unconstructive distraction or requiring incremental effort from the worker. My experience is that the benefits far outweigh this minor inconvenience.  However, algorithms and analytics like Delve, change this game by leveraging our working behaviours to pull information and insights from the work of others and make them available to enable us to better learn or to find better practice. 

Solutions like Delve enable all of our working out loud practice to rest on a pull model. If Delve can surface a document that I need to see or I can use from the work of my peers then it doesn’t rely on any more effort from my peer that to enable this sharing and configure privacy and security settings. If Delve Analytics can help me to learn how better to use Microsoft’s productivity tools by supplying insights on my use and that of my peers, then again it does not require my colleagues to measure, document and share their approaches. A similar example is that Swoop Analytics have now released Swoop personas to enable each user of an enterprise social network like Yammer to understand their personal style and effectiveness in the use of the platform. 

The trajectory of innovation is that these algorithms will be increasingly effective and increasingly deeply integrated into our products.

Is that it?

If algorithms are the answer, it that it? Do we no longer need the human practice of working out loud? Why don’t we just wait?

There is an adoption challenge of sorts with the coming algorithms. Algorithms can help with insight, but they cannot address the human side of openness to learn, willingness to experiment and ability to handle the social elements of working out loud.  We all need to learn to be able to manage new practices and to have mindsets to be able to benefit from the change.  These mindsets stretch from an attitude of generosity, desire for connection, a move from reliance on personal expertise and through to the ability to handle odd moment of embarrassment. If we do not get the mindsets right, then we will miss the benefits of new ways of working.

The value of the practice of working out loud now is that it enables each of us to learn important social skills in the network era: building connections, reciprocity, generosity and how to create and sustain the creation of value in networks.  The networks and the algorithms are not going away. The challenge for all those seeking to be ready for the future of work is to learn how best to leverage these new models.

Just like AlphaGo, those who are already working out loud are discovering new practices and approaches to work through their own work and through watching the practices of others. You can wait for an algorithm to arrive to make the change for you or you can get ahead of the curve and enhance your practice of working out loud.