MJFChat: Understanding Microsoft’s Employee Experience Vision

We’re doing a twice-monthly interview show on Petri.com that is dedicated to covering topics of interest to our tech-professional audience. We have branded this show “MJFChat.”

In my role as Petri’s Community Magnate, I will be interviewing a variety of IT-savvy technology folks. Some of these will be Petri contributors; some will be tech-company employees; some will be IT pros. We will be tackling various subject areas in the form of 30-minute audio interviews. I will be asking the questions, the bulk of which we’re hoping will come from you, our Petri.com community of readers.

Readers can submit questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or LinkedIn using the #AskMJF hashtag. Once the interviews are completed, we will post the audio and associated transcript in the forums for readers to digest at their leisure. (By the way, did you know MJFChats are now available in podcast form? Go here for MJF Chat on Spotify; here for Apple Podcasts on iTunes; and here for Google Play.)

Our latest MJFChat is all about Microsoft’s just-announced Viva employee-experience platform. My special guest is Jennifer Mason, Vice President of Workforce Transformation and Learning for Planet Technologies. Jennifer also is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) and Regional Director (RD) who is well-versed in all things Office-related.

Jennifer helps put Microsoft’s thinking around Viva in context and talks about the technologies and strategy around this new Teams-based, extensible platform. She and I dig into Teams, Viva Connections, Insights, Learning and Topics during this episode.

If you know someone you’d like to see interviewed on the MJFChat show, including yourself, just Tweet to me or drop me a line. (Let me know why you think this person would be an awesome guest and what topics you’d like to see covered.) We’ll take things from there….

Mary Jo Foley (00:00):
Hi, you’re listening to Petri.com’s MJF Chat Show. I am Mary Jo Foley, AKA your Petri.com community magnate. And I am here to interview tech industry experts about various topics that you, our readers and listeners want to know about. Today’s MJF Chat is all about Microsoft’s newly announced employee experience platform known as Viva and my special guest today is Jennifer Mason, who is Vice president of Workplace Transformation and Learning at Planet Technologies. Given her knowledge of SharePoint, Teams, and lots of other Microsoft technologies. Jennifer, no doubt has a lot to say about Viva. So thanks Jennifer. I really appreciate you doing the chat with me today.

Jennifer Mason (00:52):
Thanks for having me.

Mary Jo Foley (00:55):
I am excited about this topic because I feel like there’s a lot of different places to dig in. So let me do a little intro of Viva first. In case anyone missed this, Microsoft, the first week of February announced Viva, an employee experience platform that Microsoft hopes will make customers’ work lives simpler and better by bringing together communications, analytics, learning, and knowledge management components. So Jennifer, somebody said to you, what’s the elevator pitch for Viva? What would you say?

Jennifer Mason (01:33):
Oh goodness, that’s a fun one. So elevator pitch, we’ve got a minute and we’ve got to, you know, have the fun music going in the background. I think it’s bringing all sorts of things that we’re already doing together in a new way of working. And it’s employee experience, so I think it’s giving insights and access into non IT people, to see what we’re doing. So when I think about employee experience, I usually think of there’s someone in HR, there’s maybe somebody in communications and in those forward thinking, you know, millennial companies, there’s usually like, you know, the vice president of experiences or, you know, that the czar of HR or something. You know, one of those fun, ridiculous categories, whose job is to do nothing, but know how are my employees experiencing life. And so it’s their job to kind of know those types of things.

Jennifer Mason (02:26):
And so I think this tool is kind of bringing together a lot of the things we’re already doing. And a lot of the tools that Microsoft already has in a way that like puts a cherry on the cake and puts it all together. If you really look at the pieces, it’s not pulling together that many new products, it’s like, Oh, that’s Project Cortex. And that’s the Team app that they announced, you know, the Learning Team app that they announced a couple of months ago and, Oh, that’s just a SharePoint page inside a Team. So it’s pulling together a lot of things that they were already working on, but pulling them together a way that gives us a new employee experience, but it’s almost for a new audience to manage and a new audience to drive. So I think that would be kind of the pitch for it.

Mary Jo Foley (03:10):
That’s interesting you brought up the, is it new or not new? Because when I was watching Twitter during the announcement, which was a virtual event with Satya Nadella and Jared Spataro, I saw a lot of people saying this isn’t new, it’s just SharePoint and Yammer and Teams. And I agree with you that it’s a repackaging and a reintegration of some of these technologies. So do you think it matters that it’s not new? I mean, is it a bad thing for Microsoft to take technologies that it already has, that are tried and true and then put them into like, you know, new wine in old bottle kind of thing?

Jennifer Mason (03:50):
Absolutely not. Can you imagine how more we would be screaming if they actually built a new tool to do it? We would be so mad. We would be so mad, but the fact that they’re giving us tools and they’re giving new tools for a manager. Now, maybe it’s not a new tool, but as a manager, could I ever go in before and see some of those analytics and be able to make a decision with it? So Microsoft has been saying for years, you know, adoption is not about just using the technology. It’s how we use the technology. And are we really adopting the technology well, if we’re working at midnight and having meetings, if our workday is eight to five, no. But if, as a manager, if I can’t see that, then that’s not good for me not to be able to know that.

Jennifer Mason (04:35):
So Microsoft actually giving a manager the ability to see that in a safe way. So I can’t pinpoint who it is, but I just know in general, that’s actually a great improvement. So while it really is just, you know, analytics on top of SharePoint, instead of giving it to a site admin, it’s actually putting it in the hands of users. So is it the same thing? Yes, but it’s to a different audience presented in a different way, providing totally different value. So same tool, different value. So they can say it’s different, but those are just your grumpy IT folks saying you didn’t give me a new toy. That’s all that is.

Mary Jo Foley (05:15):
Take that IT Pros.

Jennifer Mason (05:17):
Yeah. I heard they were all just grumpy. They didn’t get new toys.

Mary Jo Foley (05:22):
So that brings me to an interesting question. Good segue point here. Do you think it’s going to be a steep learning curve, both for IT Pros and then for general employees, if their company starts to roll out Viva or will it just be like SharePoint and Yammer, if you already know this, you just get it.

Jennifer Mason (05:42):
I don’t think it’s going to be a learning curve at all for your general user. I think it’s going to be a learning curve for culture on how to integrate it. Now I say that for some of the things, for Topics where you’re going in and actually consuming it and using it, you’re absolutely going to have a learning curve for the people that are curating the content and how they interact with it. Getting value out of that Topics, maybe not a learning curve, right? It’s naturally pushing it towards you, but the people that are curating it and managing it, there’ll be a learning curve there. For the learning piece, I don’t think there’ll be a learning curve for going in and using the learning app. It’s so simple, but if we want to push learning to users and as a manager, I want to use it as a tool.

Jennifer Mason (06:28):
There may be a learning curve for that. For the Intranet, where we’re connecting really no learning curve. That’s consuming data. Will there be a learning curve for the HR folks or the communication folks where they want to create an Intranet site? Yes. But if I can create a Word document, I can create a SharePoint page. It’s so easy. They keep making it easier every time. So no problem, but where you get the experiences with the insight, I think there’ll be a learning curve there, but that is going to come along in terms of how is the culture of the organization changing and how are we learning to engage with our users? What are we doing with the data that says all my employees are working late. All of my employees are in long meetings and they’re large meetings. How am I working with that information?

Jennifer Mason (07:18):
And what am I doing with it? So as an executive, if I see a large percentage of my meetings are long and no one’s getting anything done, am I going to follow the prompts in Outlook to kind of send people hints to have more effective meetings? So what am I going to do with that kind of stuff? I think there’s going to be a learning curve, but I don’t think it’s the typical learning curve. I think it’s learning of human behaviors. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s a different type of learning. But probably a good one. And probably when you know, humankind is, you know, ready for the challenge, I’d say based on the year or so that we’ve had. But I don’t think it’s going to be anything that’s not helpful. So I think it should be pretty easy to implement from everything that I’ve seen. And a lot of it’s going to come around change management and learning theory and different things like that.

Mary Jo Foley (08:08):
Interesting. Yeah, that’s cool. I like that. When I was thinking ahead about what might be part of Viva, I really thought there’d be a lot of integrations announced with Dynamics 365 and also more with LinkedIn HR tools too. And we didn’t really hear about either of those things during this announcement. So I’m curious if you think these kinds of things will be coming anytime soon. I mean, I don’t know if you’re under NDA on that or not, but like I just thought at least the HR side seemed kind of like an omission in the suite of tools.

Jennifer Mason (08:47):
Yeah. I don’t, I think coming in any time soon, I think absolutely. I don’t think it’s necessarily an omission. I think we can see the writing on the wall of core something’s going to be coming. And it’s probably going to be coming, you know, soon, who knows when soon will be and they’re going to be coming. Right. They’re definitely coming. I think that we can see kind of the writing on the wall and see how it’s putting it together. Right. If they’ve said it once they want Teams to be that one hero experience, this has kind of that first shot of putting some of those employee experience tools together. So employee experience kind of leads right into HR. So of course, you know, I would think that’s probably the next iteration of things. So I’m sure we’ll see. I mean, what Ignite’s coming in March, so who knows, what else? Who knows, what else is up their sleeves? We know they don’t give us all the candy on the first shot, so there’s probably something coming. So I would naturally think, you know, that’s going to be the next iteration of things. Right. And they’ve got all these funny little names, so I’m sure there’s Viva something else coming soon. Right?

Mary Jo Foley (10:00):
I know it won’t be boring like Viva HR, it’ll be something else, but,

Jennifer Mason (10:04):
Right, right we gotta have an exotic name or something.

Mary Jo Foley (10:09):
Yeah, I agree. So I feel like Viva’s development by Microsoft was of course spurred in part, at least by the pandemic and working from home. But I also feel like Microsoft doesn’t see this only as a remote work solution. And I’m curious if you agree, do you think Viva could have a place when people start coming back into the office?

Jennifer Mason (10:33):
I absolutely think so. I think it’s interesting cause I think this is one of the first times that Microsoft has really been forced to build a product from the same seat and the same chair as their users. Microsoft is very much from my experiences in working with Microsoft, very much a desktop, I’m sitting in my chair, I’m in the office, I’m having hallway conversations company and the pandemic hit them hard. They were one of the first cities hit in the US. They were one of the first cities to work from home and they locked down and locked down quickly. And Microsoft as an organization, took it super seriously. Everyone was at home and it impacted them. I mean, we could see it on Twitter. I could tell from conversations we were having with them, how they responded both on a personal level as a company, taking care of each other, just different things like that.

Jennifer Mason (11:27):
And I think we’re seeing that empathy in the tools that they bring out and even some of these experience tools. I think that there is a lot of personal experience in these tools and there is a lot of empathy in this tool. I think it’s because they felt a lot of this on a personal level when they deployed this. And I think as they go back and doing it, I think they were already starting to think hybrid. I think some of them are hybrid now. And if you start to look at the studies, I don’t think we will ever go back to what it was pre-pandemic. I think we are going to be hybrid for years to come or what the studies are saying. So there’s going to be some form of hybrid. We’ve been talking to our 15 year old and I don’t even know if he’ll ever start in an office.

Jennifer Mason (12:09):
So some of these connection tools are going to be so important to get him connected, like on day one, whereas to us, they’re kind of like, do we really need these tools? And it’s like, okay, well maybe we do like, and so I just think it’s a totally different world. And moving forward it’s going to be completely different. And I think that they’ve been thinking about that from the beginning. And some of these studies that they’ve done are showing that and some of these workforce trends, just what the pandemic has done to the workforce in general has accelerated these changes that they were anticipating coming anyway. So it’s a very interesting impact that it’s had just in the overall overall impact to the workforce.

Mary Jo Foley (12:51):
I think you make a really good point about age. I think, I feel like I’m very old school and I’m also old too. And so for me, like these kinds of tools, feel a little woo woo, right? Like, Oh, that’s nice, employee experience, you know, analytics, but I feel like younger people kind of have a set of expectations about what onboarding should feel like, and they want to be part of a team and they want to be more collaborative. So, I’m curious if you think this will be something the majority of users end up saying, yes, this is really important to me. And I want to integrate this into my company. Or do you think it will be kinda more piecemeal in terms of how the adoption happens and what kinds of companies adopt these type of tools?

Jennifer Mason (13:40):
Well, I think right off the gate, we’ll see some of the larger companies will immediately start to adopt this. I think it’s going to make sense in some large companies right away. This is going to fill in some gaps that are just great. It’s going to give us amazing analytics and information and just provide tremendous value that we don’t have insight to right now. And in a safe and secure way. And it’s going to help us check the pulse of the company. It’s going to help us look at adoption. And adoption is not about the tool. I mean, at the end of the day, who cares, who’s using Teams who cares, who’s using Word, who cares, who’s using Office 365. It’s about our employees using the tools to be productive, to actually get their job done and still be productive members of society.

Jennifer Mason (14:27):
So that they’re not working too much and they’re being productive. That’s what adoption is about. Are we getting them the tools they need so that they can work and then go home and live meaningful, enjoyable lives? Are they able to, you know, give back to the world and then go home and refresh, you know, and be human. Like, this is what adoption is about. It’s not about yay, I uploaded enough documents. And so, but to do that we have to know how they’re working with the tools. And so these analytics help us do that. They help us know, am I wasting so much time in meetings? Am I going to so many meetings that I’m not even giving my employees bathroom breaks or lunch breaks? Am I working 24 hours a day? Like, that’s the scariest statistic from this pandemic is that the nine to five workday is gone.

Jennifer Mason (15:13):
That’s just terrifying. So getting these statistics is going to help us course correct. It’s going to help us readjust and course correct. So I think once larger organizations they’ll do that, I think in the smaller organizations, people are going to have their hand on that already. If you’re in a smaller organization and you only have, you know, a handful of people, you probably already have your finger on that pulse. And it’s easier to kind of know what’s going on with your employees. So in the beginning, while we’re waiting on licensing and we’re waiting on all the pieces, I think just like everything else, it’ll kind of be a slower uplift and we’ll see what’s going on. We’ll wait for all the pieces to come out. We’ll kind of let it roll out. We’ll let some of those case studies come out and then others will follow. So I see it happening just like the other major product releases. But super excited. I’m super excited about it. So I’m guessing by Ignite, we’ll see some good case studies.

Mary Jo Foley (16:05):
Yeah, I bet we will too, like early adopters and preview customers for sure. You know, of all the pieces, you know, we’ve talked about the Learning app and the insights and the communications. The part I have to admit, I have a soft spot for and a lot of interest in is Project Cortex, which is the knowledge management piece which is now called at least inside of Teams, we have Topics. So, you know, originally when we heard about Project Cortex, Microsoft was thinking about rolling this out as one big brand new product, like a whole new kind of thing added to Microsoft 365, but now we’re seeing them roll this out in pieces, in different places like there’s SharePoint, Syntex, and now there’s this Viva Topics. So do you think this makes more sense than rolling out Cortex this way? Kind of like, well, this piece goes here, this piece goes there, or do you think it’s more confusing to customers what they’re doing?

Jennifer Mason (17:02):
I think it makes sense. I think use it where people are already at. You’ve got a very targeted audience right now using Teams for most of their day-to-day stuff. Using meetings, especially when the pandemic hit and we’re all home. Most of us are working from home using Teams for all of our meetings, all of our context. It makes sense to just put it where we’re already at and make it super easy to access. So I think it makes sense for them putting it in there. I think they’ll continue to roll it out so that no matter where you’re at, you can get it from different pieces. So I think it’s a really good decision for them to do it that way. And I think they’ll continue to make it available. I think Jeff Teper when he’s pulling in SharePoint and Teams and all of these pieces together, he’s doing a great job leading the team to kind of divide and conquer and make everything accessible from all of the different pieces. So they’re building from a lot of the same framework. So to us, we may see only from one angle, but they’re really thinking about it from all the other angles. So it really is going to be multi accessible.

Mary Jo Foley (18:06):
Hmm. Okay. I haven’t really talked that much about Teams as kind of being the anchor for this whole thing, but we know Teams as a platform and that means there’s a developer play to this, right? So I’m curious how much you think Power Platform tools are going to come into play here and especially for the partner community, if that’s going to be a major thing for them to think about in terms of how to integrate with Viva.

Jennifer Mason (18:35):
Well, I do know for sure, they’ve announced in the, like the Viva Learn, there’s going to be a big partner play there. So they’ve, yeah, they’ve come out already with the big four, Pluralsight. It’s Pluralsight, it’s the Skillsoft, edX and LinkedIn Learning have integrations already and they’ve said they’re going to have an API. And so they have, they got put on a list right now, as of right now. And then Microsoft Learn has an open API and they’ve got partners working in there. So there’s going to be some APIs and there’s going to be a partner play there with Microsoft Learn. I think the rest of the pieces were, you know, still to be determined, there’s always a partner play.

Mary Jo Foley (19:21):
Right, there is.

Jennifer Mason (19:21):
So the question is when and where. There’s a project play with Cortex or, you know, there’s, there’s been a partner play there for years.

Jennifer Mason (19:31):
We’ve been on the partner team for, I think two to three years now. And there’s many partners on that team there. So it won’t take you long going through those websites to find out who the key partners are working with that. So I have no doubt there will continue to be a partner play at Microsoft. That’s how they run their ecosystem. So it’s just kind of waiting to see what the pieces are. But I’m sure it’s Microsoft, will go to the line that makes sense and then bring in partners to take it in other angles and go different directions. So I have no doubt. I think they’ll wait, they’ll get it to a certain point where they’re ready to invite partners in. And then you’ll see different partners come in. So I know for sure for Viva Learn and Cortex have partners involved right now as well. And I know for the Intranet, they also have partners that they’ve worked with as well. So yeah, I definitely think there’s partner plays. I think we’ll just continue to see what they are as we move forward.

Mary Jo Foley (20:27):
Okay, great. One thing, we touched on this briefly earlier in the chat, but a lot of people during the event where Viva was rolled out were a little concerned about pricing and licensing and Microsoft really didn’t say much yet about that. I know Topics is going to be $5 per user per month, add on to E5. but I saw people saying, wow, if every part of this thing is $5 add-on this is going to be super expensive. So we don’t know, like I said, we don’t know yet what the pricing and licensing model is going to be for Viva, but do you think people should be concerned about that? Or do you have any kind of guidance about, you know, Microsoft wouldn’t do it that way or kind of general thoughts since they haven’t yet disclosed what the model is?

Jennifer Mason (21:17):
Oh, I wish, I wish I had more information to share on this one. I do not have any guidance. I would give people caution. I would not go out and, you know, turn everything on and, you know, say, let’s go, I would definitely learn it and understand what it is, you know, look at the business case and see what it is. And then wait and see what they’re going to do with licensing. We’ve seen what they’ve done in the past with, you know, the Power licensing, Power Apps licensing and different things there. I just, I don’t know what they’re going to do with licensing here. So everything I’ve said is, you know, more information is coming and I haven’t seen anything and don’t have anything more to share beyond that. So beyond the $5 per user, per month for Topics, that’s the only thing I’ve seen and believe me, I have dug and dug. But I have not found anything more on that one. So I know with the Workplace Analytics and stuff like that, there’s different licensing and stuff like that that you can have. But then when that changed to Viva, I don’t know if anything changed there, I’ve put in some requests to learn some more, but I haven’t been able to track it down quite yet. So I think it’s yet to be determined. I’m guessing by Ignite, we’ll hear a little bit more, would be my guess.

Mary Jo Foley (22:34):
Yeah, me too. We always get, as the press, when we ask for something they’re not ready to talk about, we have nothing more to share. So that’s what I get on that.

Jennifer Mason (22:49):
As MVPs, we kind of get the silent smile. So even we weren’t able to crack more on that one.

Mary Jo Foley (22:57):
Well good, now I feel less mad.

Jennifer Mason (22:57):
Yeah. Just not ready to share on that one, which is fine. At least we got the product and you know, it’s going to be cool. And I know they’re going to, I know they’re working on it and trying to figure it out. So we’ll hear soon.

Mary Jo Foley (23:10):
Exactly. You know, before we started this chat, you brought up something really interesting. Which I hadn’t really thought about, which was Microsoft developed this during work from home. Right? And that’s different because a lot of the products we’ve seen them launch over the past year were things they had already started developing in the office and then they kind of came to fruition during the calendar 2020. But I feel like Viva is something that is very focused on work from home because it was developed as a work from home product. Right?

Jennifer Mason (23:41):
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Mary Jo Foley (23:44):
Yeah. So I don’t know, I just thought that was an interesting observation you made. Cause I’m like, yeah, I didn’t think about that. Like, it kind of gives a whole different feel to a launch of something like this, which is Microsoft had to know what it was like working from home to build something that was so attuned to working from home.

Jennifer Mason (24:01):
Yeah. I mean, working from home, imagine code check-ins and check-outs on slower internets and waiting for different people. Having developer meetings with babies crying in the background and kids needing help, kids needing help with school. And I mean, it was definitely, we actually got a kick out of it. I mean, you’ve been working home at home for years. My husband and I have been working at home for years. And so we, when the pandemic hit, you know, I already had a dedicated office space. I already had everything I needed set up. I had a routine, you know, I go to my office in the morning. I work, I take breaks. I have a routine that keeps me mentally sane and separated from the workday and the home life. But watching everybody transition into it, they were struggling. And for awhile you couldn’t buy a desk on Amazon.

Jennifer Mason (24:50):
You couldn’t buy a chair, you couldn’t buy anything. And it was crazy watching on Twitter, watching it all unfold and then to see them come out with these tools, oh so quickly. And then to watch the rate at which they’re releasing and then to see the set of tools and know this product, you know, they talk about things born in the cloud. I mean, this product was born, work from home. They talked about this product working from home. They’ve been building on it and you know, they could have been working on it even before then. But I mean, the majority of it was done while they were working from home, feeling our pain. So, you know, they knew what it was and they understand, and the data that they’re getting from it and the feedback and, you know, the pride that they have from it, you know, there wasn’t a shot of all of them celebrating a launch party in a room somewhere. The shot was a Teams Together Mode picture, you know, it was great. It was great to see. So I know they probably take a lot of really personal pride in this application and understanding it because I think they felt it. They probably felt the burnout, am I burning my team out in even building this? Am I working them too hard, let me go check my analytics, let me, you know, let me see, did they check the smiley today?

Jennifer Mason (26:01):
So I think it’s neat. So I think it’s going to be cool to see the pieces that come from it. And you have to wonder, you know, did some of the personnel studies that, you know, Jared and his team did, did they come from concerns they had with their own team? So, there’s a lot of empathy and stuff built into this product. And I just, I’m really proud of where Microsoft is going with this one, because I think it’s so needed and brings a human side to SharePoint and Teams. And I think it’s going to drive, drive true adoption of the product where adoption needs to go and where people need to go. Because if you do studies on workforce, which is what I’ve been doing over the last couple of years, everything’s going to change. Digital transformation is just going to change how the workforce goes and where things are going. And now adding this human side to what we’re bringing into Office 365 is really going to help us up-skill that workforce that’s coming into it and just help us get people where they need to go, to be able to go into that digital era and just think different. So it’s a really exciting time to be working with these tools and seeing all these things come up. It’s exciting stuff.

Mary Jo Foley (27:05):
Awesome note to end on like the empathy and the thinking into the future. So thanks, I just wanted to say thanks so much for doing this during the pandemic and sharing your insights with everybody about the new Viva platform.

Jennifer Mason (27:19):
Yeah. Super great. Thank you for having me so much.

Mary Jo Foley (27:21):
You’re welcome. And for everyone else listening right now to this chat or reading the transcript, I’ll be putting up more information soon on Petri about who my next guest is going to be. Once you see that you can submit questions directly on Twitter for the guest using #MJFChat. In the meantime, if you know of anyone else or even yourself who might make a good guest for one of these chats, please do not hesitate to drop me a note. Thank you very much.