Microsoft Inspire 2018: Towards a people-centric experience

During Inspire 2018, its annual worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft demonstrated to the world that it has gone through a fundamental transformation since Satya Nadella is at the wheel. Their business is no longer structured around products but around solution areas and with a more people-centric approach than ever. Tri-ICT’s business unit leader Wim Dierickx was in Las Vegas. This is what he saw and learned.

Article by Wim Dierickx, Business Unit Leader Tri-ICT

With two big conferences taking place July 14-18, Las Vegas was Microsoft country. Inspire 2018, formerly known as the Microsoft Partner Conference, hosted 18.000 people from more than 140 countries, representing IT companies that work with Microsoft products and solutions, or sell them. Ready is Microsoft’s internal conference, formerly known as MGX, where employees and management exchange information on the next fiscal’s priorities for the company, including strategy, vision, new products and tactics. It is a closed education and networking event for Microsoft employees.

As a former Microsoft Business Group Lead, I joined more than 10 of these (internal) big events. Inspire 2018 was the first time I joined as a ‘partner’, representing an IT company whose activities involve Microsoft technologies.

These gatherings are always impressive. Microsoft used the Vegas T-Mobile arena with a capacity of 20.000 for the general sessions. The other sessions took place in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, boasting up to 75 breakout rooms that can contain hundreds of people each, spread out over a total estimated space of about 93.000 square meters. Even without good content, this conference is electrifying by its sheer size. Imagine ‘simply’ having lunch with all the attendees!

Throughout the conference, top executives shared insights on Microsoft’s course, its vision and strategy and focus areas, also unveiling some of the new products and technologies that will reach the market or that Microsoft is investing in. The time where the Windows operating system was the key product for Microsoft is now definitely over. Focus is on what people do, how they work, where they work, no matter what device they work on.

Microsoft 365 and the modern workplace

Yes, Microsoft lost the battle on smartphones, but they are winning it with user endpoints. It is fine for Microsoft to use an iOS or Android device, as long as people use Microsoft apps on them to manage their email, collaborate, communicate, edit documents.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said it clearly during his keynote: 'At the experience layer, we are moving to this people-centered experience. That means we're going to, in some sense, de-couple the experience from the devices'.

Microsoft has huge success with Office 365 all over the world (135 million seats). Surfing on that wave, they have repackaged the ‘entire’ modern workplace as Microsoft 365, which is Office 365 + Windows + Enterprise Mobility & Security. The customer buys (or actually subscribes to) an integrated ‘Modern Workplace’ with the expectation to seamlessly switch between any type of device, system or application.

'Teams' for free

At Inspire, Microsoft put a big focus on Microsoft Teams, part of Office 365. Teams is the place for end users to collaborate, start meetings, exchange information, etc., essentially a collaborative chat tool like its competitor Slack, but within a Microsoft/Office 365 setting. By fixing some important shortcomings compared to Slack, Microsoft is now allowing guest access to Microsoft Teams, which basically offers employees from other organizations to take part in the meeting. This development also implies that solutions like Skype for Business will over time (2 years?) be absorbed by… Teams. Since July 12, Microsoft is offering a free version of Teams that creates the possibility for small businesses and startups to use the service without having to buy Office 365 first. Although the free version has it limitations, it can still be used by up to 300 people.

The way Microsoft looks at communication is very interesting: there is the Inner Loop (project team), the Outer Loop (the entire organization) and the Private Loop (personal e-mail). Teams is the environment for the ‘inner loop’ of communication while Yammer is Microsoft’s solution for the ‘outer loop’ and Outlook clearly the solution for the ‘private loop’.

It is great to see Microsoft focusing on dynamic teams, boosting creativity in the workplace and fostering innovation amongst employees. But the fact remains that a large part of end users just start their Outlook in the morning and live the rest of the day in some legacy ERP environment. More people-centric focus is great, but some down-to-earth realism would also be welcome, preferably in combination with adoption strategies to bring the ‘common’ end user to the next level. Many people still use e-mail for project communication. Not everybody is a power user who lives in OneDrive or SharePoint or is used to set up meetings and projects in Teams or Slack.

The intelligent cloud and the edge

It is clear that Microsoft wants to move all customers to the cloud. The only remaining question is ‘how’ and ‘when’. More and more capabilities reamain available as cloud versions or subscriptions only, and not in the on-prem or perpetual versions any longer. Microsoft even has special offers for customers on platforms like on-prem Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008. These platforms will run out of official support in 2020, but for customers bringing these to Azure, support is extended for free.

Azure is, no doubt, the most complete cloud offering on the market and not only for Microsoft environments: more than 50 percent of workloads running on Azure are open source! Developers, e.g., can work with Java, nodeJS, PHP or deploy on Linux, etc... Azure is no doubt a great platform with all the technologies you can dream of to enable any organization to innovate and implement new digital business solutions in the Digital Transformation era.

With Azure, Microsoft hopes to make Artificial Intelligence accessible, allowing organizations big and small to build solutions with artificial intelligence to improve productivity. More and more bots will be developed to automate and improve customer experience, bots able to detect customer language, sentiment and facial expressions. During Inspire a few examples where shown, from commercial applications to solutions with real impact in e.g. healthcare, human aid and development. The Azure platform (better said: the intelligent Cloud) has all the components needed to develop smart AI-based applications connecting to ‘edge’ devices from the Internet of Things. ‘Azure IoT Edge,’ the Azure site says, ‘is a fully managed service that delivers cloud intelligence locally by deploying and running artificial intelligence (AI), Azure services, and custom logic directly on cross-platform IoT devices.’ Azure for sure facilitates the Intelligent Cloud (and Edge) of the future.

At lot of attention was paid during Inspire to Devops and how Azure plays a key role in any Devops Process, whether using Microsoft tools or other well know tools (like Jenkins, GitHub, CHEF, …). Microsoft also improved Azure’s performance, e.g. with Azure SQL Data Warehouse with 2x faster query performance. Azure Virtual WAN was announced and Azure Firewall mentioned, both of which (for example) allow customers to connect their network to Azure to allow large-scale branch connectivity.

Business Applications

One thing should be clear, the future of Dynamics is Dynamics 365. Dynamics 365 is Microsoft's combination of a cloud CRM and an ERP system. It showed a 65 percent growth during the first three quarters of the company's fiscal 2018. Microsoft claims it is one of the fastest-growing businesses, even faster than Office 365.

Microsoft reports they nearly count 100,000 monthly active users on Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations (D365FO), which is the Dynamics 365 ERP (Cloud!) solution for (larger) enterprises, with a growing number of customers using ‘connected processes’ though Microsoft's Common Data Service. This simply means that e.g. ERP and CRM parts can ‘talk’ to each other and as a result make sure that D375FO ties to other D365 apps like ‘order to cash’ and ‘field service to operation’. Something that sounds like it should always have been the case, but in the past, an environment like CRM did not talk seamlessly to e.g. AX. It looks like Microsoft finally fixed that.

As LinkedIn was acquired by Microsoft in 2016, Microsoft invested in transforming LinkedIn more and more towards different solution areas. Other highlights at Inspire 2018 were the sessions on Dynamics 365 for Talent and LinkedIn Sales Navigator. The first launched a year ago as an HR-focused app that delivers a connected experience across the employee life cycle, with LinkedIn integration. LinkedIn Sales Navigator, updated last year, got a lot of attention as a tool to help sales not only find contacts amongst their accounts but also helping them generating leads. It can be used on its own or integrated in popular CRM environments like Dynamics or Salesforce.

Transforming Microsoft

Essentially, Inspire 2018 demonstrated to the world that Microsoft had their own ‘transformation’ since Satya Nadella is at the wheel.Their business is no longer structured around products but around solution areas and with a more people-centric approach than ever.

There aren’t that many companies that survive so long in a constantly changing and challenging business environment. Microsoft successfully transformed the company several times (from personal to enterprise, from missing the internet wave to being fully on that wave, from on-prem to cloud, and this time from technology to people-centric).

But there is still a long and interesting road ahead. And as good as the intentions are, it also depends on the adoption of technology by people. What’s the use or worth of an advanced Team environment where an online meeting full of rich content between people on different devices and in different locations can be organized with one click if people working at real time companies still use the conference call system from the local telco?

Let me close with a quote from Satya Nadella during his keynote: 'I've lived through the client-server, the web, mobile, cloud. But what we're going to see going forward is going to be even more profound.'

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Wim Dierickx Director Tri-ICT
+32 (0)2 712 08 90

Inspire 2018: Product Updates

At Inspire 2018, a wide range of product updates was presented. The essentials:

Azure & Power BI: Microsoft announced new features and services across Azure and Power BI such as new IoT capabilities, next generation SQL Datawarehouse, more big data support and AI for PowerBI .

Microsoft (Office) 365: New intelligent event capabilities are coming to Microsoft 365, such as creating sophisticated events with streaming and other content. It will also feature new workplace analytics solutions that use data from everyday work in Office 365 to identify collaboration patterns that impact productivity, workforce effectiveness, and employee engagement with tools to manage change and improvement.

Microsoft Dynamics: Microsoft announced it now provides free access for partners to the Dynamics online learning environment.

What do these announcements mean for day-to-day work?

  • Microsoft offers more user-centric solutions that could (should) facilitate teamwork by setting up online meetings, intelligently managing the information you need at a certain point (less swapping and less copy/paste);
  • A lot of ERP projects struggle with user adoption. Better educated partners on Dynamics 365 should result in faster adoption and higher quality in the implementation of sometimes complex business workloads and processes;
  • More intelligence in software applications, even the most common ones, provides more and better insights and reduces time lost on searching relevant information