Microsoft’s Collaborative Work Model Ignores Practical Realities

I was amused at Microsoft Marketing’s latest epistle titled “Maximize results with collaborative work management in Microsoft 365.” The piece advances the claim that in the face of “a tectonic shift in information,” Collaborative Work Management (CWM) would save time and maximize results. Clearly, we’d all love if this vision become reality.

However, the CWM described in the article has one obvious and fatal flaw: it ignores email. We are solemnly told “The apps that comprise the Microsoft CWM offering are Microsoft Planner, Microsoft To Do, Tasks in Teams, and Microsoft Lists, which are for managing work; and, OneDrive, SharePoint, and Office, which are for collaborating on that work.” (Figure 1). There’s no room for Exchange Online (unless Office is deemed to include Outlook, but that’s just one client family).

Collaborative Work Management (source: Microsoft)
Figure 1: Collaborative Work Management (source: Microsoft)

Collaboration Happens Outside Microsoft 365 Too

CWM describes a very internal-focused kind of collaboration. I don’t doubt the power and flexibility of creating documents and lists in SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, sharing documents with co-workers, using Planner to track tasks within a team, discussing ideas and issues in a team channel or group chat, and so on. I do this kind of thing every day. But here’s the thing: CWM only covers 50% of the collaborative work I do. Not every external person I work with can be or is willing to be a guest member to join the merry collaboration inside my tenant, and if I can’t bring people into the tenant, the CWM model falls flat.

Teams shared channels promise federated collaboration with no need to create and manage guest accounts. This will be a step forward, but federation is only possible between Office 365 tenants which use Teams. Although Teams now has more than 145 million daily active users, there’s still a bunch of people I need to work with who don’t use Teams and don’t want to use Teams.

Which brings me to email. Fortunately, email is the lingua franca of the internet. Once I know someone’s email address, I can communicate with them. I can send them documents and schedule meetings via email (including asking them to join a Teams call). In short, email enables people to work across organization boundaries without worrying about the software each organization uses.

Email’s Core Role Within Microsoft 365

I know the article is written by Microsoft Marketing with the intention of drawing nice pictures of how Microsoft 365 products click together in some notional jigsaw of collaboration happiness. I shouldn’t get upset when practical details are ignored. But I do, especially when I consider that collaboration within Microsoft 365 couldn’t function without email. Consider these small but important points:

  • When you share a document with someone from SharePoint Online or OneDrive for Business, they receive email to tell them about the access you’ve granted. In fact, SharePoint Online uses email for many notifications, such as when mismatches occur for sensitivity labels between documents and sites.
  • When people enter Modern comments in Office documents, the document owner receives notification of those comments via email.
  • Planner is also very adept at sending notifications about task assignments and updates by email.
  • If you miss messages posted in Teams, you can have details of those conversation sent to you via email. The same is true of messages posted in Yammer communities. Speaking of Yammer, it is also ignored in the CWM model. I guess the poster child of Microsoft collaboration marketing from 2014 to 2017 has now been discarded in the wake of Teams and a revitalized SharePoint.

More fundamentally, without the Microsoft 365 substrate and its “digital twin” storage of data drawn from across Microsoft 365 workloads, including SharePoint Online, Planner, OneDrive for Business, and Teams, cross-workload services like Microsoft Search couldn’t function and all the machine learning and artificial intelligence technology now used inside Microsoft 365 wouldn’t have data to model against. The substrate stores its data in Exchange Online.

Stay Tuned for the Next Collaborative Model

I’m all for explaining to people how components in complex ecosystems work together. Microsoft has created some extremely good collaboration tools within Microsoft 365. But CWM is only part of the picture (and some of the advice given in the piece is debatable – like creating separate team channels for each work effort). It would be nice if the pictures painted by Microsoft were grounded in reality and based on how people actually work using all the tools available to them.

CMW doesn’t reflect reality. It’s just a model. But stay tuned, another model will come along soon and this one will become marketing roadkill. Just like the Inner loop/outer loop model, aka “the foundation for modern collaboration.”

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