Delve, Office Graph must transcend Office 365 to be revolutionary

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Credit: Microsoft

The release of Delve, the first application to use Microsoft’s Office Graph machine learning engine, will be remembered years from now as either the genesis of a revolutionary technology or as a fireworks-style launch that dazzled everyone only for a brief moment.

Whatever the future holds for Delve and the Office Graph, the stakes are sky high for Microsoft, its rivals and its current and prospective customers. So it’s important to pay attention to how Microsoft further develops the technology, how customers adopt it, how competitors respond to it and how enthusiastically—or timidly—partners choose to support it, if at all.

If Microsoft realizes its Office Graph vision—and it may take years to materialize—then the way information workers interact with business software today and the way they find digital information will seem ancient and grossly inefficient. And Microsoft might fly past competitors in the enterprise with a technology that creates a sort of cockpit that automates and simplifies for employees the use of their Microsoft and non-Microsoft software.

Delve specifically is designed to intelligently automate in real time for every employee the tasks of prioritizing their work and of finding the information—files, colleagues, documents, data—they need, while staying abreast of important project developments. In theory, individual and collective productivity would go through the roof with Delve as a sort of ultimate personal assistant that understands how employees work and steers them with precision through their day.

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Delve organizes the content Microsoft thinks you need to know.

“It’s a unique play on the use of a social graph and advanced analytics to put information in front of users in a simple and compelling way,” said Forrester Research analyst Rob Koplowitz. “We’ll know if it’s a game changer if users adopt it in big numbers.”

How Delve taps the Office Graph and what it does for Office 365 users today

Microsoft, which announced Delve and the Office Graph in March, started a gradual rollout of Delve to most Office 365 customers on Sept. 8. The rollout won’t be completed until next year. When Office 365 users tap Delve, they see a graphically rich, card-based dashboard displaying the data that it determines is most relevant and important to them at any given point.

Delve bases its output on an underlying Office Graph analysis and mapping of a number of user behavior signals and content from Exchange Online, OneDrive for Business, SharePoint Online and Yammer. Soon, Delve will also be able to take into account elements from email attachments, OneNote and Lync Online.

For example, Delve knows that “Joe” has a meeting in an hour, what its topic is and who will be in attendance. So, Delve proactively fetches relevant documents, files and information about the topic and the participants, and displays them on its dashboard, so Joe can be prepared for the meeting. Joe didn’t have to spend 30 minutes compiling all this data manually, assuming that he even would have had the time to do it, and if he did, that he would have been able to find the information, a big challenge for employees of all stripes everywhere.

People can also use Delve as a more conventional search engine, querying it with keywords. But Delve features some nifty search filters which users can just click on to see, for example, results for what’s been “shared with me,” “liked by me,” “modified by me,” “viewed by me,” “presented to me” and even what’s “trending around me.” The last one informs the user about recent actions in Office 365 taken by colleagues who are important to him, either because they report to him, or he reports to them, or because they belong to one or more of the same groups in SharePoint or Yammer, for example.

Big open questions for Office Graph and Delve

To deliver at this ultimate level, the Office Graph and its applications would need access to a vast universe of Microsoft and non-Microsoft business software, hosted on premises and in the cloud. Currently, the Office Graph, as presented in the early version of Delve released two weeks ago, is limited to some Office 365 components. So there’s a long road ahead to broaden the Office Graph’s currently narrow scope.

Building a graphing engine to cover Office 365, other cloud and on-premises Microsoft business software as well as a critical mass of third-party applications and systems is not only a gigantic engineering challenge, but will also require a generous API extensibility platform from Microsoft and a willingness from other vendors to cooperate with the effort.

“Delve is likely to be a sticky app because it lets you find your stuff, see who is working with whom and on what, which topics are trending and so on. So it’s valuable from a personal productivity point of view and can improve the way people work in teams by giving them a clearer situational awareness,” said Mike Gotta, a Gartner analyst.

However, the bigger question looms around APIs and Office Graph access to systems beyond Office 365, he said. “I may spend a portion of my day in Office 365, but also in Salesforce.com or SAP or another software,” Gotta said. “Those should also go into the Office Graph.”

And then there’s a potential problem that could intensify if and when the Office Graph grows larger and stronger: pushback from users who find this stealthy technology creepy and intrusive, and become suspicious that it could be ripe for management misuse and overreach.

“How will employees react when all they do is monitored, tracked and analyzed?” Gotta said. “The technology is going to be hard, but there will also be cultural obstacles.”

In enterprises where employees and managers haven’t always been diligent about setting appropriate access rights settings for documents and files, it’s inevitable that Delve will inadvertently expose information to people who shouldn’t be seeing it, Gotta predicts.

While that may not be the software itself, it will heighten the problem of improperly locked down information. “Delve will make information less shielded,” Gotta said. “It’s taking information previously disconnected and fragmented, and arranging it and surfacing it and making it more broadly and easily available and discoverable.”

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