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TechnologyAug 14, 2020

Microsoft 365: The Collaboration Game Has Changed

Ryan Mann

Over the last few years, the digital workplace day-to-day paradigm has gained significant momentum across the board. New technology offerings have been steadily increasing and adoption rates had reached a consistent climb into an online-focused approach. Then COVID-19 entered the fray. Offices went dark. Schools shut down. Business travel all but disappeared. Almost overnight the collaborative space had accelerated into uncharted digital territory. Welcome to the new reality of day-to-day professional interaction. 

“We’ve seen two years’ of digital transformation in two months.” Microsoft Build May 2020 – Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Several prominent tech companies (Google, Twitter and Facebook to name a few) began adopting a long-term hybrid work from anywhere approach. Some of which may never require a return to the office. The model shifted to a digital collaboration standard, signifying that the traditional interactive landscape will never be the same. As an organic byproduct this pushed several firms to seek and shore up their engineering and development ranks with talent agnostic to geographic organizational hubs. 

The workforce as it was once known had now become completely decentralized. It’s imperative to take a step back and understand the magnitude here. Collaborative technology and frameworks serve as the backbone inside all organizations.  

Aspiring to ‘disrupt’ or ‘innovate’ the marketplace are most likely part of many industry leaders’ three year plans. In order to empower the workforce, organizations must provide each employee with an intuitive digital workplace environment. Collaboration capacity is at the core of everything we do professionally, more so now than ever.

At Credera, our Digital Workplace team specializes in many collaborative technologies with a primary focus on the Microsoft 365 stack. We help our clients successfully plan and rollout implementations for SharePoint, Teams, Power Platform, Azure, and OneDrive to name a few. This blog is the first in a series that aims to highlight common approaches of successful modern collaboration concepts and gauge the impact given the current global climate. In the coming weeks, the Digital Workplace team will take a deeper dive into some of the modern collaboration components outlined in this blog. 

enterprise content management

Unifying the organization should be at the core of any collaborative workplace solution. One of the most imperative aspects of digital interaction is providing intuitive user access to information across the enterprise. While on the surface it may seem simple, it’s something that many organizations struggle with daily. A user can get lost viewing multiple versions of a file spread across different technologies while having little confidence they’re accessing the most up-to-date item. This confusion can present a significant challenge assuming that most organizations are comprised of both structured and unstructured content. For structured content, the best approach is to define an information architecture inclusive of governance tiers or categories. SharePoint, Teams, and OneDrive all have user benefits if leveraged in the right scenarios. However, it’s the structure of these governance tiers that will ultimately deliver intuitive access to content. 

For unstructured content, it’s not as binary. It’s rare to find clear delineation between content segments that do not share similar traits or use cases. One solution here is to turn to technology. Cross-platform profiling capabilities are often overlooked in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. The Microsoft Graph provides workplace intelligence around every component, event, and user action across all applications.  

The Microsoft Graph provides insight out of the box for recent files, Teams conversations, peer communications, and Outlook interactions based on machine learning. When designing an information architecture, it’s important to understand what role the Microsoft Graph might play in the overall schema. While several components are natively available it’s possible to create custom rules/components that deliver a user-targeted experience (e.g., within SharePoint and Teams). This approach pushes curated information to the user and helps minimize action required on their part. The Microsoft Graph can be an effective component in any solution aiming for intuitive access to enterprise content that is less structured in nature.

targeted platform approach

Employee enablement rests more in the digital experience now than it ever has. It can be easy to lose focus across the gamut of all the collaborative apps in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. While SharePoint serves as the core underlying technology for other applications such as Teams and OneDrive, determining which tool to use at any given time can present a challenge. This is substantially compounded given the current disparate nature of general work communication. A goal of organizational leadership should be to empower employees across global locations. However, simply enabling functionality will not achieve the desired effect.

As mentioned in the previous section, it is crucial to design and implement a governance plan not just across content but also across applications in the ecosystem. There is functional overlap in many of the Microsoft 365 offerings. Just because it may be possible to execute a task in one does not mean it’s the best approach. 

For example, look at the following two questions about collaboration:

Any answer is possible in this scenario. Developing specific tiers per application can help crystalize use cases for employees and lessen confusion. A common approach is to start from three different classes: Public, Group, and Personal. 

  • Public content that’s considered available across the organization would reside in a static location such as a Company portal in SharePoint.

  • Group files that need consistent iteration or require item co-authoring / collaboration on a digital whiteboard may best be served in Microsoft Teams. 

  • Personal Files for 1:1 collaboration or individual usage are best use case for OneDrive, therefore excluding either of the two options above as best use cases. 

Again, each tool here can be used in a similar fashion but it’s important to have clear and concise guidance for employees on how best to maximize the experience using each one.

Identifying scenarios and clearly communicating application roles will help ensure employee alignment across all applications in the ecosystem. This has become increasingly important when collaborating remotely with groups/individuals outside the organization.  Digital security has always been paramount, and a robust governance plan will help ensure alignment. The recent onset of attacks targeting the work-from-home world underscores their importance. Implementing a plan to effectively leverage these tools and educating employees on how best to collaborate outside of the organization will help lower overall risk and increase user satisfaction.

high value customizations

Building a targeted solution for a specific collaborative scenario is one way to help mitigate a disparate workforce. For those that remember the long-lost days of a highly customized SharePoint Intranet and Extranet portals the pain and battle scars are mutual. Jumping through development cycles to deploy a solution only to find it breaks upon a patch update was always challenging. 

Thankfully that is no longer the case. The modern Microsoft 365 collaboration landscape has shifted significantly away from a fully custom approach. This is a direct result of the ‘Ready to Go’ mentally Microsoft has been embracing for the last few years which provides targeted experience access regardless of device type.

In moving away from the legacy approach, a new breed of technology is available to deliver customized application components while still abiding by the business requirements within the M365 platform. Through the SharePoint Framework it’s possible to achieve a similar level of customization that’s executed in a bite-sized fashion. Put another way, this approach allows for the scaffolding of the solution to change without manipulating the overall blueprints. For example, dynamic content on a modern page can be delivered completely through the properties pane (when not using simple out-of-the-box web parts). Historically this was either list driven or sourced via a custom component.

Dynamic custom card SPFx webpart

Configuration panel options

This paradigm allows for significantly lower risk while providing the same level of targeted customization.  Organizations can develop custom solutions on demand, in the context of a specific location and with unique requirements as needed. This can ultimately lead to minimizing development cycles and maximizing overall focused value across business teams while delivering a device agnostic user experience. These customizations can be deployed to an entire tenant or be limited to a single site collection. It’s worth noting the SharePoint Framework continues to evolve even though it has been around for a couple of years. Components of the solution have paved the way for the Office Fluid Framework.  This intends to serve as the cornerstone for all Microsoft Office and Microsoft 365 customizations going forward.

intelligent automation & mechanics

Workflow and process automation components have historically been key pieces of functionality in any robust collaborative platform. Adding intelligence to a solution helps decrease the risk for human error but more importantly provides relief for employees allowing them to focus on more valuable tasks. In a climate with non-stop Teams meetings and conference calls, replacing repetitive task interaction with RPA (Robotic Process Automation) could not be more critical. Microsoft has invested heavily in the M365 space which is highlighted by the Power Platform. This set of tools brings unique value to the ecosystem that requires low/no code to implement. Process owners can look to adopt individual solutions per requirements, thus minimizing an IT bottleneck.

One component of the Power Platform is Power Automate. It is considered the evolution of Microsoft Flow.  Many of the legacy features involving traditional workflow automation still exist in the new iteration of the platform, including process data, update fields, send for approval, etc. 

While several platform value adds, there are two key callouts in the most recent offering. 

1. Microsoft Artificial Intelligence Engine

It’s now possible to construct several different artificial intelligence (AI) models that can be leveraged to make decisions based on key data criteria. One example might be a form that is processed via Azure Cognitive Services. Approval processes can be calculated and tasked via OCR (Optical Character Recognition) based upon thresholds in the AI confidence model. Due to these metrics a different set of action items may be produced on each instance of the form relative to variables such as an invoice amount, geographic location, or product type. Ultimately, the ability to remediate many of these simple day-to-day tasks through intelligent processing can help free up employee work cycles.

2. General Connectivity

Given that Power Automate is a part of the Microsoft 365 platform several apps such as Teams, OneDrive, and SharePoint can leverage its capabilities. A process can start in one application and potentially traverse through another. For example, a team of 2 two people can begin iterating on a new company policy in a closely controlled OneDrive folder.  Once the document is ready for larger group feedback it can be automatically promoted to the respective Teams channel with notifications going out to the group. After final executive approval is achieved the document can then be processed and provisioned to its final resting place on the HR page in the SharePoint company portal. This could be as simple as relocating the actual file or potentially transcribing the content and ingesting the text into a new SharePoint page. Access across the Microsoft 365 ecosystem can allow several applicable scenarios to gain efficiency and optimization where the business sees value.

scratching the surface

The goal of this blog is to illustrate recommended approaches or a high-level use case scenario for inclusive tools/components. There is a lot more to the platform so covering it all in one sitting is a challenge. Each solution will inevitably require independent details, designs, and configurations. The message here is that the approaches discussed combined with Microsoft 365 technology should help empower organizations to tap into operational efficiencies at a time where digital collaboration is incredibly valuable. If your organization needs help implementing or modernizing your digital workplace, then please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at findoutmore@credera.com.