Microsoft's Foray Into Expertise & Social Networking

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 17, 2006

5 Min Read

Microsoft kicked off its “People-Ready Business” campaign early this month in NYC with much fanfare. Most media coverage of the event however seemed to skip a very interesting demonstration of technology forthcoming from Microsoft, likely within its Office 12 wave of software releases. If you go the webcast of the event, located here and then go about 19 minutes into the webcast, Chris Capossela, Vice President, Microsoft Business Division takes the stage. What I found interesting happens about 29 minutes into the webcast where there is a demo of Outlook being used within a CRM scenario. It starts out with a simple search on bikes that returns your standard list of content. But if you look at the screen behind Chris, you can see that there is a new tab on the search results page, a “People” tab. When this tab is clicked, the search results list experts, how much of an expert they are, and the social distance that the experts are from the person doing the search. A portion of the speech is quoted below with a link to the full transcript.

It's also important for me to be able to reach out to experts inside my company and find other information that's very unstructured. So we're going to sell Kontoso some bikes. So I'm just going to come back to my internal Web site and search on the term "bike." Click on that search, and now we're going to run a search that shows us a whole bunch of information very quickly, bike case studies, some sales plans, some contracts that we've used. But perhaps most interestingly, it also finds people inside my company who are experts on dealing with bikes. When I click on people, we'll show these people not just on how much of an expert they are but actually by social distance that they are from me, so actually seeing the folks that are my colleagues at the top, then my colleagues' colleagues, then everybody else at the company, so I get a good sense that these are probably the folks that I'm more likely to know and want to work with. And again there's that presence information, so I can instant message with Dave or schedule a meeting with Dave right here from the results of the search.

It remains unclear what exact set of products are involved but one can reasonably conclude that it will be anchored around SharePoint Products & Technologies (e.g., portal, workspaces, enterprise search) and perhaps Exchange (looking at e-mail interactions) and Windows Desktop Search as well. This could be a simple or complex solution from a technology perspective. A more direct design would likely rely on well-defined metadata and profiles that associate users, expertise and social distance (likely leveraging Active Directory). It would possibly need to include connectors to capture explicit data or information from directories or other sources (HR systems). A more complex design would include some type of discovery, aggregation, filtering, profiling and categorization engine that would derive tacit aspects about users in terms of their affiliations, expertise and social distance. Such a design would likely need a “strength of relationship” engine found in best-of-breed products to analyze a range of content and data sources and would be much more intricate than approaches that are more declarative in nature. In either approach however, strong security and privacy controls are essential.  

Microsoft’s interest in knowledge, expertise and social computing is not new. But prior disconnected efforts seem to be coalescing and becoming more focused. There was no further elaboration by Microsoft on what was demonstrated at the People-Ready event other than past statements in general regarding expertise support with Office 12. There are some hints of what might be forthcoming by other public sources:

  • In a December 2005 essay, Bill Gates talks about the role of knowledge and in a May 2005 essay, he talks about the new world of work.

  • Additional background can be found at the Microsoft IT Showcase which provides information on best practices from Microsoft’s internal IT groups. Information on Office System – SharePoint Portal Server includes information produced by Microsoft’s internal Knowledge Network Group. Within these documents are themes around shared knowledge architecture, shared corporate vocabulary, “best bets” keywords and “best bets” people (experts) and how SharePoint Portal can pick up on these keywords to filter search queries. Within these documents are insights on deploying search, notification, audience targeting and user profile services.

  • There are also interesting efforts underway at the The Working Network site best described on this Channel9 interview describing Microsoft activities related to tags, tagging and social bookmarks as well as RSS feeds (e.g., "OPML-o-Mater", “Community Bar”).

So at this point, “stay tuned.” Automation of expertise and social networks has never been delivered in the market as generalized enterprise infrastructure. To-date, it has been the realm of specialized vendors with their own applications (that at times, seem to be infrastructure posing as an application). Past attempts have mostly resulted in failed companies (e.g., Kamoon, Participate Systems), failed products (e.g., IBM’s Discovery Server), or vendors that so far have not been able to move out of specific vertical or situational applications (e.g., AskMe, Contact Networks, Spoke, Tacit, Visible Path and XpertUniverse).

Microsoft certainly has the ability to alter the expertise and social networking landscape, but success will depend on how such capabilities are implemented. Issues regarding integration, interoperability, modularity, third-party support, security and privacy remain ambiguous. It is also unclear how these capabilities might be delivered via Microsoft’s Windows Live and Office Live efforts.

Finally, and most importantly, there are significant process and organizational issues regarding automation of expertise and social networks that are far more critical to address before proceeding into any technology decision and implementation.

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