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Rob Howard, director of Office 365, leads the Office ecosystem team at Microsoft, overseeing everything from Word, Excel and PowerPoint to Skype for Business, Teams and Delve, which are all part of the Office portfolio.
Given the breadth of products Howard looks after, it seems Office has become much more than the suite of office productivity software popularised by Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
When asked about the definition of Office 365, he says: “It is the most complete suite of apps and services for workplace productivity.”
Beyond the core software applications, Office now encompasses site and content tools through SharePoint and OneDrive; chat and collaboration using Microsoft Teams; and analytics using PowerBI and My Analytics. With 100 million monthly commercial users, Howard says the suite represents a major opportunity for developers.
The Cloud Solution Provider Programme is one of the ways these developers can work with Microsoft to build add-ons for commercial businesses, particularly in small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). “In some cases they can take an offer an independent software company has built around Office 365 and tailor the product to the customer’s needs. And in a lot of cases they build their own customer software on top of Office 365,” he says.
Building insights from user data
What underpins all of the products under the Office 365 umbrella is technology such as Microsoft Graph, the company’s graph database.
“You can take the data, the activity and the content in each of the Office 365 workloads and pull them all together. This creates a network effect, where the value of each of the Office 365 workloads is now greater because you can understand the relationships between them,” says Howard.
“With 100 million people using Office 365, for example, we have a huge amount of data about how people work,” says Howard. “We can use that to generate a bunch of insights such as saying, ‘Hey, in your organisation, the expert on a particular topic is this person’, because through the Azure cloud, Microsoft Graph can recognise they have authored documents, sent emails, chatted to and met people about the topic.”
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The subject domain insight is surfaced using Delve, Microsoft’s tool for finding and organising documents. “If you search for any topic in Delve, you will be able to find the people in your organisation who are the experts along with content related to it,” he says.
Developers can take the data and intelligence gathered through Microsoft Graph to develop custom business applications powered by this data.
Another example is the extensibility of Microsoft Teams, the company’s chat-based workspace. This too can make use of Microsoft Graph, and developers can extend it by building their own custom business processes.
AI in Office 365
Several of the features in Office 365 are now powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Two examples are PowerPoint Designer, for building professional-looking slide decks quickly, and QuickStarter, a tool to pull in relevant content for slides.
Microsoft is also developing ways to make Office 365 work in a more intelligent fashion. Insights collected by the company on the way people work with Office 365 can be used to direct users to relevant content. “Delve has changed the culture of how people work at Microsoft,” says Howard.
He says he has two stand-up meetings a week, and, through Delve, is able to discover the relevant documents he needs to look at, based on the work the teams have contributed to through Office 365.
A Fitbit for work
Among the more novel uses of machine learning in Office 365 is My Analytics, which Howard describes as “a Fitbit for work”. It helps users track their work habits, such as how many hours a week they spend in meetings or sending emails.
“It is not just the data, but also the insights from that data, which can be used to help personal productivity,” he says. “You can set goals against them. For example, I tend to send emails late at night, and I will be able to see they are being read and responded to out of working hours. As a result, I may want to think about sending them first thing in the morning to avoid causing people extra stress.”
Microsoft has taken this further with workplace analytics to enable human resources and people with managerial responsibilities to see how groups and teams across the organisation collaborate. “This could be used to help organisations run productivity programmes, facilitate better connections or understand how to reorganise a group,” says Howard.
Microsoft Graph integral to Office 365
It’s clear that Microsoft Graph is core to every aspect of Office 365. It has the potential to become the tool for exposing all the knowledge held electronically in an organisation – so long as the chats, emails and documents are available in Microsoft’s cloud through Office 365.
Howard is also adamant Teams is a significant new application in the Office suite, but the challenge for Microsoft is to overcome the common perception that Office 365 is mainly Word, Excel and PowerPoint. While these will remain the foundation of the suite, he is confident Microsoft is getting the message out to enterprises to use more of the team, chat and collaboration features now embedded in Office 365.