Why No Lessons Learned Microsoft?

Last week saw the first major service disruption to Office 365 in several years. A severe storm in Texas impacted the cooling system at the US South Central data centre, which resulted in protective systems in the data centre switching into containment mode and shutting down servers to prevent further damage. Many people in the immediate local area were affected, but more worryingly, so were users far outside the local area as cascading effects were felt with Azure AD across the world.

That was last week. Everything is back to normal. I decried the state of communication during the outage and asked for more human moments throughout. And after monitoring the Microsoft news sites for the past week and seeing nothing (nada, zilch, zero) about the outage and what went wrong, I’m left wondering why not.

Clearly something happened that should not have happened. Clearly something in how Azure AD (and other non-regional services like the Azure Resource Manager) is engineered / architectured is not where it should be yet. What I’m looking for is an explanation and elaboration of what happened, what Microsoft is going to do to resolve it properly this time, and perhaps even some insight into what happened in the data centre last week.

Customers purchasing cloud services from Microsoft rely on those abilities to do their work. And when everything is working fine, everyone is happy. But when there’s a problem, getting back to a normal state as quickly as possible is critical. But secondly – and perhaps even more importantly – is the deep analysis of what happened, what was learnt, and what will be done / is being done to prevent a recurrence. An outage we can accept, albeit grudgingly. A failure to learn from what happened we are much less willing to tolerate.

And the unwillingness to publicly disclose the learnings from a major outage makes a post like this one highly suspect, even though I’m sure the guidance is great:

We have heard from you, our customers, that you’d like us to provide more guidance and recommendations to help you successfully deploy Azure Active Directory (AD). So today, I’m excited to share a new set of step-by-step deployment plans based on the best practices we’ve learned from working with thousands of customers to successfully roll-out Azure AD.

Deployment plans guide you through the business value, planning considerations, implementation steps, and management of Azure AD solutions. They bring together everything you need to deploy Azure AD capabilities to get the maximum value. Deployment plans include Microsoft recommended best practices, user communications, planning guides, implementation steps, test cases, and more!

In the first instance, as a consequence of what happened last week, customers across the world would be more happy to know that Microsoft itself can “successfully deploy Azure Active Directory” in a way that local outages don’t cause global meltdowns.

More Human Moments from Microsoft

After a pretty good run, Microsoft Office 365 had a major outage in San Antonio TX this week. A lightning storm during the night caused a power spike in the US South Central data centre, which negatively affected the cooling system in one part of the data centre, which triggered the automatic systems to start shutting down parts of the data centre to prevent further problems. Some Office 365 customers in the region were affected. Some Azure customers in the region were affected. And various Office 365 customers around the world were also affected – one segment due to a historical decision to host metadata for early Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) customers out of the San Antonio data centre, regardless of where they were actually located, and another segment due to Azure Active Directory suffering from degraded availability and how the global architecture of multi-factor authentication has been configured.

During the outage, Microsoft used two main avenues for communicating status to the world: the Microsoft Azure status page, and the Microsoft Office 365 status page. The problem in US South Central was such, that, however, the Azure status page was only intermittently available; it kept going up and down. The Office 365 status page was more reliable, although much less informational with updates only delivered infrequently (every 3 hours). It would be good to see more information on the Office 365 status page, along with a more regular stream of updates (every 15 minutes even). When everything has gone south and your ability to work has been degraded, any new information about timeframes and resolutions and current actions are highly valued.

The other avenue was Twitter. At 1.13pm Texas time on September 4, the @Office365Status twitter account posted this update:

When I look through the responses to the tweet, I see the following: disagreement, uncertainty, and perplexity. Various people disagreed that services were restored, as they were still under outage conditions. Others were asking what the impact of the outage would be, such as on their legal holds. And still others were perplexed that Microsoft could let this happen; shouldn’t this have been designed out of the service by now?

While the above can be seen, there is something that can’t be seen: any attempt during the outage by @Office365Status to directly respond, engage, allay fears, spread hope, or give updates. Zilch. Nada. Zero. As a company with more than 100,000 employees, surely in such outage conditions, at least one person could be on hand to provide a human moment to the paying customers of Office 365 who have responded to the original post.

To ask for more insight. What are you seeing at your place? How many people is this affecting?

To offer an apology one individual at a time. Bruce, I’m sorry that Office 365 is down now. We’re working to put it back together as fast as possible.

To give updates on what the engineers in the data centre were doing. We have 25 engineers arriving from out-of-state, to help with the physical clean up. You should see the mess!

(I’m making up these answers).

To answer the hard questions. Legal holds won’t be compromised. They will stay in place. But clearly, nothing new will be added while the system is out. Or, Will your email send after we’re back online? Yes, if it is in your Outlook outbox. It depends in other situations. What is happening at your place?

To share any updates on where the team was at, and what was happening. Wow, what a day this has been for us. So unexpected. Our first responder team is about to go off-duty, and the second team is starting in 4 minutes.

A person. A human moment. Dear Microsoft, you can do this.

Satya has said that people shouldn’t join Microsoft to be cool, but to make others cool. But when the chilling winds of an outage blow across an already cool population, the warmth of a human being delivering a human moment is needed to keep the balance and prevent everyone from freezing.

Excel for Mac Plus Excel MVPs

Excel Table Talk Episode 6

Back in the early 1990s, the first client project that paid decent money (NZ$25 per hour, which my client described as “charging like a bull”) required the use of a massive spreadsheet to analyse cost flows in a small manufacturing firm. I spent hours and hours collecting the data, looking at how to manage it, and then how to use a spreadsheet with macros to automate the analysis. While PowerPoint got me my first visit to London to present at a conference in March 1994, it was Lotus 1-2-3 that enabled me to graduate debt free, and in retrospect, probably enabled me to get my first job after university. There was a lot of financial modelling required in that first role, although unlike at my manufacturing client, Microsoft Excel was the product of choice.

The above video presents recents updates in Excel for Mac, and at the end, has some short interviews with the Excel MVPs at the recent MVP Summit. I don’t do a lot with Excel anymore, and my days of charging $25 per hour are very much last millennium, but it’s fascinating to see the Excel team keeping on working with a product that directly and indirectly touches so many of the decision making processes in the world.

New Computer – 2014 vs. 2018

Several years ago I had the opportunity to help the husband and wife team of a small business go from one computer to two new laptops. They had shared one PC for a long time, and it took hours and hours to separate what was his and what was hers (files, email contacts, applications) … and then stitch together a new PC for each of them. If I recall correctly, once done, something in the order of 20-30 hours disappeared into that project.

At the time, we deployed Box for file sharing, so that we’d never have that problem again. He had his files. She had hers. And there was a shared space for them to share. I like services that create some separation between a device and its contents; while content can be stored on a device, being authoritatively and solely stored there is a recipe for problems in the case of a failed hard drive, lost machine, or even a successful ransomware attack. Box provided this – with all files stored authoritatively in the Box service, and sync’able to each device as required.

We continued with the current IMAP based email system for the next few years, but the quality of the threat protection was such that I was growing increasingly worried that one or the other would click on something nefarious, and then we’d have a nightmare situation to resolve. I had a plan for such an eventuality (thanks Backblaze), but would always prefer to not get there in the first place.

This year I shifted the client to Office 365. The cost to do so was about the same as using Box and paying for the existing email service. With both of those cancelled, the monthly cost for Office 365 is slightly less over time. Box has gone, and is replaced with OneDrive. The email service with low quality threat protection is now replaced with Exchange Online and Exchange Online Protection (which can handle signature-based threats, not the new and emerging ones for which we’d need Advanced Threat Protection). As I now monitor the email traffic coming in, the number of nefarious emails has been greatly reduced – not to zero mind you – but much, much less than the other service.

Last week it was time for a new laptop for the husband. The previous one was on go-slow, and it was time for something faster and smaller. Unlike four years ago, this time it was turn on, sign in with the Office 365 work account, download the apps from the Office portal, set up Outlook and OneDrive for Business … and the machine was basically ready to go. After installing a few other non-Office 365 apps as well – 1Password, Backblaze, Trend Micro Internet Security, etc. – and what previously took 10-15 hours was about two.

If we’re using Microsoft 365 next time a new laptop is required – adding the device management and additional security capabilities of Enterprise Mobility + Security, along with Windows 10 licensing – I’d expect the time required to be even less.

But whatever way you cut it, this is a substantial improvement over 4 years ago. Thanks Office 365.

Microsoft Whiteboard

While a white background is a common starting experience in Microsoft’s applications, the specific capabilities of each tool both create and constrain what you can use it for. Word’s white background is for words, sentences, paragraphs and pages. Excel’s white background is for numbers and calculations and data modelling and charts. PowerPoint’s white background has traditionally been for words and sentences as well, albeit it in a different form and for a different purpose to Word’s whiteness and wordiness. In some spheres, PowerPoint is becoming more of a structured method of telling a story with photos and pictures and minimal words. Windows Explorer – for storing and sharing files. Etcetera.

What we’ve lacked for too long – constrained by not having the tool itself nor a wide distribution of touch-enabled and pen-enabled devices – is the equivalent of a whiteboard in a meeting room. The blank canvas on which you can write words, draw lines or pictures, put numbers in a table … the do anything blank canvas for beginning a new work or idea or project. Not for finishing it – there are other and better tools for that – but for starting … there’s nothing quite like a blank whiteboard or blank sheet of paper. Oh the possibilities. Oh the opportunity for … starting afresh, anew, differently, creatively.

Now that there are many more appropriate devices on the market – the iPad crowd with their Apple Pencils, the Microsoft Surface crowd with their Surface Pens, and various others – Microsoft’s release of its new Whiteboard application for Windows 10 (and soon iOS and other device platforms) makes a lot of sense. The context is ripe, so the content can now flow in new and different ways.

From the Microsoft 365 blog:

Microsoft Whiteboard is now generally available for Windows 10, coming soon to iOS, and preview on the web. Whether meeting in person or virtually, people need the ability to collaborate in real-time. The new Whiteboard application enables people to ideate, iterate, and work together both in person and remotely, across multiple devices. Using pen, touch, and keyboard, you can jot down notes, create tables and shapes, freeform drawings, and search and insert images from the web.

Welcome to Whiteboard. I got my copy for Windows 10 from the Microsoft Store. Given where it was announced, the collaboration capabilities will require an Office 365 subscription of some kind.

It’s time to let our pursuit of the perfect begin again with the mighty pen.

Workplace Analytics for Teams

In the chapter on Running Team Projects in my book Re-Imagining Productive Work with Office 365 (2016), I made the following “wouldn’t it be cool if” comment (page 197):

Delve Analytics reports on an individual level about the effectiveness and efficiency of the meetings that the individual was involved with during the past week. Wouldn’t it be cool if the analytics capabilities in Office 365 could report on the effectiveness and efficiency of the activities undertaken in running a given team project over the previous week—highlighting meetings that were or were not effective (along with reasons for that conclusion and recommended mitigations), timeliness to complete tasks, and suggestions for other people to involve in the project as well. Delve Analytics at an individual level is good; at a team project level it would be fantastic. While Microsoft undoubtedly has its own research to draw on for such analytics, it would be worth reviewing Google’s research on itself on what makes a perfect team.

Microsoft hasn’t announced the above capabilities in what’s now called Workplace Analytics, but it has announced some new team level capabilities that are good forward steps. Specifically (from July 12):

… we are introducing solutions to help turn organization-wide insights into action plans for individuals and teams. The first solution—Workplace Analytics solution for teamwork—helps teams build better collaboration habits and master their time by guiding organizations through three steps:

1. Discover collaboration challenges – Use data from everyday work in Office 365, like emails and meetings, to discover challenges like meeting overload, minimal time for focused work, or high after-hours workload. Combine these insights with engagement survey results to find connections between work patterns and indicators of team health like engagement and innovation scores.

2. Empower teams to change — Enroll teams in change programs to help them build better habits like bringing agendas to meetings and blocking time for daily focused work. Participants receive personal productivity insights and action plans powered by MyAnalytics.

3. Measure and improve — Make sure your change programs are successful by measuring progress against goals over time. Iterate and improve as you see which action plans succeed or fail in changing teamwork habits.

The data signals that are available from step 1 are critical and define what is possible in steps 2 and 3; what’s captured will shape the proposed remedies or changes. Given that the data collected is quantitative – about meetings held, meeting length, emails sent and received and read (and when), etc. – rather than qualititative (the meeting was productive, the email answered the question, the email created greater clarity to enable better action) – there’s clearly still a whole lot of scope for improving the signaling quality available for Workplace Analytics to do its magic … and therefore reshape collaboration and productivity patterns in team and organisational life.

Small steps in the right direction taken repeatedly lead to great destinations. The above doesn’t deliver on the destination I’m imagining yet, but it’s in the right direction.

Who Switched the Drawers?

I have 21 drawers by my office desk. These hold stationery, paper, books to read, pens and pencils, pocket knifes, old thumbdrives, book manuscripts, keys, cables, in-progress projects, client-specific items, old journals I haven’t scanned yet, charging adapters, and much more. Each drawer has a particular focus, and over time and with repeated usage, I get pretty good at knowing where a given item is located. Repetition builds and extends recollection, so that I’m not usually rummaging through all 21 drawers to find a given object. For the drawers I use frequently, I know where to find what I’m looking for.

But the drawers are inter-changeable, so one can be withdrawn easily from one drawer unit and put into another one. So it’s entirely possible – and I’ve done this multiple times over the years – to re-allocate where each drawer is. Some items move to the top of the drawer stacks, others move towards the bottom.

And what chaos it creates. Now I’m usually rummaging. Now I’m opening each drawer in quick succession to find the object I’m looking for. Now I’m annoyed because something has moved, even though it was me who moved it – for a good reason. But once again, it’s a short-term pain and things settle into a new pattern; I know where to look, I can quickly locate each item, and I’m ready to work.
Making improvements to my drawer allocations has similar short term impacts when improving work through new tools like Office 365. While the baseline toolset is roughly the same – Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook – achieving the impact and improvement requires changes in behaviour.

From hiding files on a personal drive to hosting them in SharePoint or OneDrive.

From controlling the world through Outlook to collaborating with the world through Teams, Yammer and Skype.

From relying on intentional search in SharePoint to resting with intent-aware serendipity via Delve and the Office Graph.

And then once you have developed a new rhythm, Microsoft changes things. Moves the drawers, as you will. A new feature here, a deprecated feature there, and a moved around feature over there … and the new way of working you were developing gets disrupted (slightly or more severely). But persevere. See the change, understand what it means for you, and keep going. Because truth be told (apologies in advance, I couldn’t resist saying it this way) – mark my word here – if you want to excel, you will need to change your outlook on toolset change and just flow with it individually and within your team.

The drawers might have been shifted. But you can still do your work with agility, flexibility and awesomeness. It will just take a few days to recapture your rhythm.

Backlash Against Group Chat

Group chat offers a particular approach to communication between people, characterised by rapid fire interaction, short sentences or thought fragments, and a fun and lively tone. This approach has several implications, such as:

  • The conversation space tends toward chaos, disjointedness, and dis-organisation. People weigh in on multiple, simultaneous and at times overlapping conversations within a given channel, and even across multiple channels. It is very easy to lose track of the essence of a conversation, and become caught in the vortex of apparent urgency. The nature of the medium calls for immediate feedback and interaction on new ideas, which results in an interrupt-driven always-connected work style. The focus on the hyper-short-term steals time and space from thinking on deeper issues and longer-term concerns for the team and its work.
  • The fast-paced interaction feeds the fear of missing out and contributes toward feelings of loss of control. Many Slack users, for example, find themselves impulsively and habitually checking their Slack channels to catchup on activity since they last checked in. Since topics are often discussed with too many words, over too long a time duration, and by people who are not even involved, responsible, nor accountable for decisions arising, active discussions become emotionally and cognitively overwhelming.
  • Short sentences and incomplete thoughts fired rapidly by multiple people into a conversation space undermines any semblance of a coherent line of argument. Such conversations are fragmented, shallow, and not good for depth of thought and insight. Some issues—many even—require a more thoughtful analysis and line of argument to be developed and written coherently in a longer document, whereas Group Chat merely has everyone endlessly chatting about it.
  • Social signals and team dynamics within a conversation space become confused in Group Chat. For example, is silence and non-participation in a topic an indicator of consensus, disagreement, or just that a team member isn’t currently available (and that the team should wait until they are available)? Conversations can quickly be commandeered by the noisy, quick-witted, and verbose members of the team, which when pushed to the extreme, can become workplace bullying and harassment.
  • A “discuss everything” principle can create the sense of always being in a meeting; or as one executive described it, “an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.” Always waiting for someone else to respond to your one line comment gives a convenient excuse for not actually doing the work to fully form your own ideas. Another executive commented that “you are constantly tempted to converse on Slack instead of thinking or planning or doing other work.”

In summary, Group Chat can become a significant driver of the fear of missing out, frustrating conversation dynamics, continual interruptions, mental and cognitive fatigue, and the elimination of time to think. Recent research into the use of social media among young people and adults has highlighted the mental health problems that result from frequent use (see here and here); there are already signals that such dynamics apply equally to adults in the workplace due to Group Chat tools.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen the above (and more) charges levelled at Slack. How long until we see an equivalent stream of concern about the usage of Microsoft Teams?

Improving SharePoint Lists – Roadmap 2018

Microsoft used the recent SharePoint Conference to introduce numerous improvements to SharePoint lists scheduled for 2018. About one third of these are available now, with the reminder scheduled to be delivered by the end of December 2018.

Here’s the list of coming changes (with one adjustment from the Microsoft blog post to make it correct):

– Flow for Cognitive Analysis – Process any text for sentiment, key phrases, translation or moderation [Available Now]
– Row Formatting – Create immersive formatting for any list or library with scripting [Available later 2018]
– Image Analysis – Create immersive formatting for any list or library with scripting [Available now]
– AI for Images – Teach the cloud to recognize new objects for auto-tagging [Available Now]
– New ways to create lists – Create lists based on Excel, templates, or other lists [Available later 2018]
– Quicker list editing – Edit list content in place, and paste data from other sources [Available later 2018]
– Link list items – Connect list items to Planner, Outlook calendars, locations, and more [Available later 2018]
– Realtime list updates – See updates to lists and libraries instantly without refresh [Available later 2018]
– Analyze lists with Power BI – use Power BI to automatically mine list data for patterns and charts [Available later 2018]
– Build Microsoft Flow workflows with Visio – Model a new process in Visio and export it to Microsoft Flow to activate and run custom processes [Available July 2018].
– Add file upload to Microsoft Forms – Add a custom question to allow users to supply a file to upload to SharePoint

(I changed the description of the “Analyze lists with Power BI” one, since the original blog post incorrectly repeats the explanation from an earlier item on the list)

My Viewpoint
1. Lists and libraries are the fundamental building blocks of most SharePoint sites. Anything that improves these capabilities – makes them better, allows them to address new situations, enhances basic capabilities, and improves usability – is a good step forward. There’s a lot in the above list to like.

2. Realtime updates plus realtime triggers to Flow events will speed the pace of happenings within lists. No more refreshing the screen waiting for something new to arrive; now it will arrive and be displayed immediately, and if necessary (if it meets pre-set conditions), will cause an automated action to take place.

3. It is good to see the ability to create a new list based on an Excel spreadsheet. With Excel being the main competitor to SharePoint for list-based information, simplifying the transition from one to the other – and giving a faster pathway to gaining access to all the benefits of lists versus Excel – is a long overdue improvement.

4. Many of these changes will call for new education and training to help people take best advantage of them (to increase capability and competence). What should we now rely on a list for? What’s our unique value add? Where do we intervene and create a human moment, or apply human wisdom and intuition rather than relying on an AI curated answer.

5. We’ve come a long way since I wrote Seamless Teamwork in 2008 for Microsoft Press on SharePoint 2007.