Client Support for Topic Cards Makes Viva Topics More Usefu
Viva Topics is part of the Microsoft Viva suite. I happen to think it’s the most technically interesting Viva capability shipped by Microsoft. Then again, I’ve been interested in the challenge of knowledge management for nearly 30 years, so I am attracted by anything which can help people share and reuse knowledge better.
Although Microsoft has shipped the core components to make Viva Topics work and improved the Viva Topics Center since the initial release, they didn’t do anything to address a core problem. The lack of support for topic cards in Microsoft 365 apps I noted a year ago makes it difficult to reuse the knowledge lovingly gathered and curated by knowledge managers. You can put as much knowledge as you like in a repository, but if it’s invisible, the information is useless.
Microsoft’s original client support for topics cards came in Microsoft search results, SharePoint Online news items, and the Office Online apps. All are worthy efforts, but none attain the status of applications that users live in all day, every day. The situation is now changing with a Microsoft blog revealing that support for topic cards in OWA rolling out and the preview coming for Teams chat coming sometime in April 2022 (roadmap item 72189). There’s no mention of if external (federated) chat supports Viva Topics or news about extending coverage to Teams channel conversations.
Topic cards are special pages in the SharePoint Online site nominated as the Viva Topics center. Each topic has its own page, which knowledge managers can update to make sure that the information presented about a topic is accurate and up to date. Viva Topics generates the cards shown in applications from topic pages.
Figure 1 shows an example of a topic page. The edit option opens the page for knowledge managers to make changes. Once complete, republishing the page makes its card available to users. The process of creating or updating a card and making it available to users can take several hours (and sometimes days).
The Viva Topics AI-powered discovery process finds resources in SharePoint sites to help people understand topics and knowledge managers can pin sites to direct readers to get more information on a topic. A welcome improvement due for general availability in April 2022 will allow knowledge managers to pin links to external pages (outside SharePoint Online).
Topic Cards in OWA
To use a topic in an OWA message, the composer types a hash sign (#) and some text. Viva Topics then attempts to match the text against its list of topics and their alternate names (for instance, Planner might have the alternate names Microsoft Planner and MS Planner). In the example shown in Figure 2, typing TEC generates a topic list of Windows NT (I don’t know why) and The Experts Conference, which is the target topic. Selecting the topic from the list inserts it into the message.
When the recipient reads the message, they can click on the highlighted topic to reveal the topic card (Figure 3). You might notice that the card is incomplete because it doesn’t display any explanatory text. This text can be added by knowledge managers or extracted from a public source like Wikipedia. The fact that it’s missing indicates that this is a newly published topic or one that Viva Topics couldn’t find text to add.
In any case, the View details link at the top of the card opens the full topic page in a browser. The latest information for a topic is always available in its page.
Users must have Viva Topics licenses to add a topic card to messages or see topic cards in messages. Those without licenses won’t see topics presented when they type a # character while recipients see hyperlinks to topic pages instead of topic cards. The same approach happens when people use clients which don’t support Viva Topics to open messages containing topics cards. Figure 4 shows how a message with a topic card link appears in Outlook desktop. Clicking the link opens the topic page.
Viva Topics Isn’t for Everyone
As noted above, I think Viva Topics is interesting technology, but it’s not for everyone. Enterprise Microsoft 365 tenants with a strong commitment to knowledge management (or an obvious need for better knowledge management) are its natural target. Budget commitment from management for people (knowledge manager effort) and licenses (now $4 per user per month – a reduction from the original $5) is needed, along with patience to mine, refine, and publish topics.
On the upside, Viva Topics support in OWA and Teams chat is a big step forward. If you haven’t got Viva Topics and don’t know if your organization will get value from its capabilities, Microsoft offers a free 30-day trial. Used efficiently, that period is sufficient to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Viva Topics in an organization.
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