Transitioning Between the Inner and Outer Loop

At Microsoft Ignite in September, Microsoft unveiled the logic underpinning its collaboration suite: the Inner & Outer Loop.  In this model, Microsoft Teams is for high-velocity communications with direct teams members and Yammer is a platform to connect with people across the organisation. The model explicitly called out there was a role for Sharepoint underpinning these two platforms and email as a channel of targeted communication.

The model resonated strongly with people at Microsoft Ignite because it reflects users different work patterns.  At the time, I quoted George Box that “all models are wrong but some are useful” and noted that for many at the conference the two loops model brought clarity in what had been an overlapping and complex suite of solutions often with little sense of how they worked together.  Since the conference, this new clarity of positioning has driven Microsoft’s product development & marketing activities for Yammer and Teams and even how the two products interrelate. The Inner and Outer loop has been shaping the future for the Microsoft Modern Workplace suite.  At the same time, people have focused on arguing about the model, reinterpreting the model, elaborating it or improving on it (Encouragement for the ‘what tool when’ crowd to redesign their many infographics).

Transition: Working Out Loud in Both Loops

One thing struck me when I considered the idea of Inner and Outer Loops: nobody works in only one loop. All our work involves a continuous process of transition between an Inner Loop of focused execution and an Outer Loop of learning, collaboration and discovery. The Loops are not places or tools. The Loops are patterns of our interaction around our work. Those patterns are ever-shifting based on our work needs. After a decade working on the adoption of social technology one thing is clear to me, we need to spend more time focused on the right ways to help users transition to more effective ways of working.

Working out loud can play an important part in aiding users to see the need to change their work.  Working Out Loud can occur in both loops. Working out loud also helps the process of transition to improve the effectiveness of work. We work out loud in the inner loop to enable our immediate team to self-organise, be better aware of status and be more agile.  We work out loud in the outer loop to benefit from serendipity, learning and discovery. One of the benefits of working out loud is that when we share our work openly other people can prompt us to open up further to the Outer Loop or coach us on the need to be more focused.



If we are always in transition between the two loops then what I thought was missing was an examination of that phase where people make a change in their way of working from one mode to the other. People don’t need to know ‘what to do where’ so much as they need to know when their current mode of work is ineffective. If we consider all the work that is thoughtlessly done as closed targeted communications in email, we quickly see the problem is not a problem of email as a tool.  The problem is that people do not consider when they might need to change their way of working. When twigged to the need to change their approach to work or the tool that they use most people find ways to make that change work for them and their goals. The transition from one style of work to another is our opportunity to enrich and expand the understanding of value of collaborative work. This transition is the key moment in user adoption. It is also an opportunity to ensure we focus on the user behaviour in work, not the technology.

The transition phase between Inner and Outer Loops is also a reminder to all the enthusiastic and passionate advocates of particular collaboration platforms that transition is continuously happening and that tools like Yammer and Teams are ‘better together‘. There is value in exploring the complementary use of both tools. The better we are able to explain to users the value of a way of working and when we transition to another mode of working the better we will support their work. That goal is far more important to individuals and organisations than advocacy or adoption of a platform.

Focus on the User

For fear of taking a simple, easy-to-understand idea and making it so complex as to be useless, I thought it was worthwhile to tabulate characteristics of the user behaviour at work in the three modes: inner loop, outer loop and the moments where we transition.  Each mode of work meets different needs and is better suited to different challenges.  In the spirit of working out loud, here’s a first table which looks at the domains under a number of different user behaviour lenses. I have also included in the table common questions that might be asked in each of these phases as the work progresses:



Triggering Transition

A focus on this moment of change in the pattern of work raises the following important questions:

  • what is it that prompts a user to look for a different way of working?
  • how might we coach ourselves to transition effectively?

If we look at both the Inner and Outer Loop we can see some signs of stress when these modes are used in the wrong ways for work.  The table below highlights some of these stresses and also some questions that leaders and team members can use to query whether it is time for a transition to a different mode of work:



Transition Into the Future

When you consider the first table above, you see that the items listed in Transition can occur in both the Inner or the Outer loop.  These transition items are why you see enthusiastic supporters of one product or the other pushing across the divide. The Transition is also a realm where the two Product Marketing teams need to collaborate as competition will risk devaluing both products with further duplication and confusion over time.  We will leave aside for the moment that you can expand Teams to manage a whole small organisation an InnerOuter Loop or run a daily team transparently in Yammer, the OuterInner Loop.

Bringing the Transition into focus also aligns the Inner and Outer Loop model into alignment with a model that Harold Jarche has been advocating for some time that draws an explicit distinction between Collaboration in teams, Communities of Practice and Cooperation in Networked Communities. The value of this connection is that Harold Jarche has developed extensive materials on his blog and in his books on the 3 different domains and patterns of work.



For example, Harold has explored the use of this model in Innovation at Work and even the connection to the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration that I have discussed at length here.  A growing maturity of work across the four stages of the Value Maturity model comes as people are better able to handle the transition from connecting with an immediate team through to exploring innovation in the widest context. Mastery comes when people can hold all four stages at once around their personal work challenges and freely transition between the Inner and Outer Loop to Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate for greater value.

In future blog posts, we will explore other dimensions of the user behaviour of the Inner Loop, Outer Loop and Transition process.  Examples of these issues include the nature of the networks involved, the leadership styles and the time periods involved:



Begin and End with User Behaviour

The focus on transition between the Inner and Outer Loop is also a reminder that for all the technology and all the powerful models what matters most is influencing new user behaviour. To do this effectively we must begin and end our work in change and adoption with a focus on what work users need to do now and what work we want them to be able to achieve in the future.  Tools alone merely enable new interactions.  The way people work requires them to make sense of new opportunities and to manage the change to new ways of working.

We must keep in the centre of consideration that these tools aren’t tools, media or technology we use for its own sake. These are tools of work interactions. Those human work interactions involve all the complexity of our human relationships with their questions of cultural expectations, trust, understanding and community. Our focus on the Inner and Outer Circle must keep the needs of these interactions at the centre of our new ways of working. The deeper we dive into how users can better leverage these tools to create new meaningful interactions, the richer the value we will create for both the users and the organisations of the future.

This is post is shared in the spirit of working out loud to gain feedback & start a discussion of the application of Inner and Outer Loops from a user behaviour, rather than a technology platform perspective. I would appreciate your thoughts and comments.  My thanks to Steve Nguyen & Angus Florance of the Yammer team for their suggestions on how to turn the initial idea into something of more value to users and community managers.

#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.