There are some truths that we all hold as self-evident. For example: freedom is good; stepping on Legos is bad; pineapple does not belong on pizza. To this list, I suppose you could add “it is better to have employees be actively engaged than not.” If you accept some form of this truth, then Microsoft’s recent introduction of the Viva suite makes perfect sense. It also doesn’t hurt that the employee experience (EXP) service market is estimated by some at more than $300 billion in size, giving Microsoft lots of incentive to seize a portion of the market. If you look at their launch of technologies focused around first-line workers (remember Kaizala?) you’ll recognize the precedent.
Keep in mind that, as I write this, none of these applications are visible in any of my US or EU tenants so, like all the other launch-day articles you might read, my opinions are based on educated guesses and reading between the lines of Microsoft’s announcements, not hands-on experience. With that said, let’s dig into what this announcement might mean to you as a working Office 365 admin.
What is Viva, anyway?
Microsoft’s Viva web page touts Viva as “an employee experience platform, helping you create a work environment that puts people first, driving better business results.” This sounds like vague corporate-speak, and it is—the notion that companies will “[put] people first” is not widely supported by evidence—but there’s some interesting stuff underlying the plan to launch Viva as a platform.
Microsoft has been pushing its global system integrator partners hard to get them to help their enterprise customers build line-of-business applications into Teams, and Viva is a good example of the same desire, just oriented differently. Clearly, Microsoft wants enterprise users to use Teams as their primary client for doing whatever their organization does. Each of Viva’s four components is exposed as an application within the Teams desktop client.
- Viva Connections ties together SharePoint communications sites, Yammer conversations, Stream videos, and Teams live events. As Tony Redmond points out, the interesting question here is “why was Yammer included?” given that this application already runs in Teams, which has its own perfectly serviceable conversation engine.
- Viva Learning is best thought of as a courseware container. In the same way that an organization can publish a set of task objects to users in Teams, now they can publish a set of learning materials to users, who can view them within Viva Learning. Microsoft’s partnered with several courseware providers (including LinkedIn Learning and Pluralsight), and they have promised to integrate with standalone learning management system (LMS) vendors as well. This is a nice step up from just giving people a link to a Stream channel of training videos but it remains to be seen how good the machine-learning-powered curation engine is. Will it suggest useful and appropriate videos for people? We’ll have to see.
- Viva Insights is sort of the love child of MyAnalytics and the Office 365 productivity score feature that was launched and then ignominiously denatured immediately after the launch. Viva Insights promises to give individual employees useful insights (“you have too many meetings” being one obvious example) and then offer actions to help (“Do you want me to block out some focus time?”) Perhaps more interestingly, the Insights feature promises to also aggregate data about multiple users into insights that managers can use. It’s important to distinguish these insights from the ones included in Productivity Score. Productivity Score is more oriented towards driving adoption of features in Microsoft 365 by highlighting what users are doing, or not doing, with specific workloads and features. The analytics features of Insights seem more oriented at helping individuals and organizations understand how people spend their time, who’s talking to whom, and so on. The open question is two-fold: first, can Microsoft winnow out meaningful data from all the noise; second, does the data that Viva Insights presents actually have value to driving employee engagement?
- Viva Topics is another offshoot of Project Cortex. Like its fellow offshoot, SharePoint Syntex, Topics uses the Cortex engine to analyze SharePoint-based content and categorize it for you into “topics.” Topic data can then be exposed as cards in Office applications (and, eventually, other applications that use the announced-but-not-shipping Topics API). The idea is seductive: either users or the service’s AI can define topics and then, without any required action, users will be offered topic-based data that helps them find exactly the information they need when they need it.
The first thing admins need to know is “don’t panic, this isn’t all rolling out just yet.” Topics are available now but cost $5/user/month, and it’s turned off by default at the tenant level. Learning is in private preview, and Microsoft hasn’t said yet how to request access to it. Connections will come into public preview “in the first half of 2021”, but only for desktop Teams at first. Finally, Insights is in public preview now—but only using the Teams version of the Insights app, which looks at first glance to be a watered-down version of the full Insights experience.
The second thing you need to know: nothing is shocking about the data visible in Insights. The service already holds all the data from which Insights’ views are generated, and almost all of it is either exposed in MyInsights, Workplace Analytics, or ordinary activity data. Microsoft makes this clear in the Insight app documentation by pointing out that “The insights are derived from data that is already available to you in your Exchange Online mailbox.” While users may hate or fear the idea that Big Brother Satya is watching them, this is already a fait accompli.
The final thing to keep in mind is that the existence of these technologies doesn’t mean anything unless your organization is able and willing to use them to deliver on the idea of helping create a more positive and engaging work experience. The question of whether organizations that have poor employee engagement will find that Viva magically makes everything better will take some time and data to resolve.