Conversation Portability in the Age of the Digital Workplace

Close Up Of Hand Holding Telephone

Back in early 2014, I wrote a piece for Wired.com called ‘The Future Requires Social Portability’ where I reminisced on a time from my telecommunications career when we built out a number of key operational capabilities, including number portability. It’s something we largely take for granted now – when you switch carriers, the ability to keep your phone number. I’m old enough to remember when the phone came with the house, with no ability to disconnect the cord from the wall short of cutting the line with a knife, and yet in the early days of mobile phones, your number was tied to the carrier – and when you switched services, or moved across the state, you were forced to start all over again with a new carrier, a new phone, and a new number.

I then made the connection between my telecom experience and the modern era of social and collaboration technology:

These issues — the ability to retain your phone number as you moved between carriers (portability) and the ability for smaller vendors to “rent” the infrastructure of the larger regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) and launch their own services (air time resale) were the key to driving down the costs of cell phones and services, opening up competition. No longer were we locked into a single platform or vendor. While vendors are still able to lock you into term agreements (which has more to do with subsidizing hardware than the actual service), you can easily move between services — and your phone has the ability to use networks all over the world (via roaming). And with the rise of internet-to-phone solutions (Skype, GoogleTalk, etc) the costs for using your existing phone, anywhere in the world, are going down.

What got me thinking about this old post and the points I made about the need for “social portability” was the announcement this week about the General Availability of Microsoft Teams, and a session I am developing with fellow Microsoft MVP John White around a whitepaper he has in draft (that I’ve been reviewing) about Office 365 Groups, Teams, the new modern SharePoint Team Sites, and the concept of Conversation-as-a-Service (or Conversation-as-a-Platform).

I have a couple different perspectives on what social portability and conversation-as-a-service mean in context to the Digital Workplace and the general direction we are heading with communication and collaboration technology, and some ideas (that I still need to discuss with John) for our joint slideware. The first is what happened to me with Yammer, and the second has to do with my experiences inside of Office 365.

Back in the pre-Microsoft-acquisition years of Yammer, while I was working as the Chief Evangelist at SharePoint ISV Axceler, some of us joined the Yammer network for our company and began to see a lot of productivity benefits. And then Axceler was acquired by Metalogix. Because my Yammer login was tied to my corporate email, I had to start all over again with my new corporate email – sort of like having to start over with a new mobile phone carrier. And so I built up my connections one more time, re-joined the MVP community and other public communities. And then I left that company, and started the clock all over again.

To be honest, as that transition was getting closer, I knew it was going to be a major headache, and so I reached out to the Yammer product team regularly to check in on a rumored capability to add additional email addresses to your profile, allowing you to retain your profile while switching email accounts. The issue, of course, was about the impact to communities that were built around a security model based on email alias (which had some gaping holes, but that’s another blog post). Unfortunately, the feature was not yet ready when I made this third transition, and so I restarted.

There was a definite impact for going through this change a third time: because I had to restart again, I decided to reduce the number of communities I rejoined. In other words, my frustration with this process resulted in my using the platform a lot less. And then I went through it a fourth and final time when Microsoft *finally* allowed people to use non-corporate emails. The lesson to be learned here is that the more you try to prescribe how users can access and utilize your system, the less likely they will stay engaged over the long-term. Our individual and team needs are constantly evolving and changing. Having a security model that meets team security requirements through strict email enforcement is great for the enterprise, but there needs to be flexibility for end users. Enterprises don’t use software – employees use software, and meeting the needs of the employee should take precedence.

We have talked about making social and collaboration technology ubiquitous within the workplace, but it “simply cannot happen while communication is landlocked within a single network” plain and simple. Some other points made in the Wired article:

While every social platform provider (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and many others) seeks to build a closed network, or possibly with loose ties to other networks, generally speaking one must be a member of — and working inside of — that network to benefit from the social interactions.

Back in the early days of instant messaging (IM), if you wanted to communicate with your buddy on AOL’s Instant Messenger platform, you needed to download, install, and run AIM. And if you wanted to chat with a friend who only used Yahoo Messenger, you had to run Yahoo IM. There were a handful of vendors who built unified messaging platforms (I used Trillium myself), but the OEMs were constantly changing their APIs and standards, making it difficult for any of these vendors to truly catch on and become a standard.

Now for my second point, or observation, which I’ll make quickly, because it deserves a full-length article on its own and this one is already getting long: Office 365 and the concept of conversation-as-a-service.

One of the struggles many organizations have experienced with Office 365 has been the several different ways that you can have a social conversation: Skype for Business, Skype consumer, the conversation capability within OneDrive and Office Web Apps, Outlook Groups, Yammer, and now Teams, and in the not-so-distant past we also had SharePoint social. Add to that the many 3rd party solutions and competitors, and what we have on our hands is a massive carrier battle. Instead of your inability to keep your phone number as you switch between networks, we are locked into conversations in one platform or another. You might start a conversation in Yammer, which is completely disconnected from a conversation on the same topic, and the same deliverables, but with different people over in Outlook Groups, or on Skype for Business. And there’s no way to really find all of those conversations if, for example, you were trying to track all discussions around a sensitive topic, such as a key piece of intellectual property. Delve is not (yet) omniscient.

When I think of conversation-as-a-service, my mind does not jump to bots and machine-learning as Microsoft sales and marketing would have us focus our attenti
on. Cool stuff, for sure, and an important part of the future of collaboration and communication. But what I think about is a shared conversation service that is accessed by these various user experiences, allowing different teams and users to use the tools and techniques where they are most productive, but within a social framework that allows the enterprise to manage them all as one (very complex) conversation.

That, to me, is number portability in the age of the Digital Workplace: the ability to have a conversation in one place, but allow me to access and continue that conversation whenever, and wherever I want.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and fractional-CMO for revealit.io, tyGraph, and Extranet User Manager.