When Microsoft said in June that it was acquiring LinkedIn for $26 billion, the mammoth deal was seen as the lynchpin of a sweeping effort to reinvent the workplace. With the European Commission giving the merger its approval this week, the transaction is expected to close before month’s end. Today begins a three-part series that examines how the combined companies could revolutionize the way knowledge workers do their jobs.
LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner greeted the news that Microsoft was buying his company by declaring that the two would be doing nothing less than “changing the way the world works.”
Microsoft and LinkedIn have revealed little since. But with the deal slated to close within weeks, those who closely follow their efforts say the combined entity will focus on three areas: increasing knowledge worker productivity, improving human resource and people management, and boosting marketing and sales performance.
At the heart of their undertaking is an ambitious scheme to integrate Microsoft’s Office Graph with LinkedIn’s social graph. The combination of these two technology frameworks, analysts and researchers say, could take professionals into a whole new era of data discovery and collaboration.
“Microsoft is trying to redefine what an efficient and productive working environment looks like,” says T.J. Keitt, a senior analyst and customer experience expert at Forrester Research. “When they talk about the modern workplace, they’re referring to an intelligent technology platform that makes it easier for employees to discover new things and reach conclusions about business problems more quickly.”
LinkedIn’s social graph scans and analyzes its members profile data and then maps and displays their professional relationships based on the information they provided. Users can look at social graphs and make connections with people of various backgrounds and skills. At present, however, social graph technology is piecemeal and fragmented. LinkedIn shuttered InMaps, its social mapping application, in 2014, forcing members to make use of various third-party programs like Socilab or Linkurious. LinkedIn, however, provides limited tools for accessing its members profile data, curbing the utility of these third-party apps.
As opposed to LinkedIn’s social graph, Microsoft’s Office Graph is a backend, machine-learning system that runs as part of Microsoft’s Office 365 suite of productivity tools, including Word, Outlook and Excel. The Office Graph provides data about who a user is and what he or she is doing with Office and various other Microsoft applications, such as Yammer, its enterprise collaboration program.
Unlike LinkedIn’s social graph, the 1 billion users of Office don’t access Office Graph directly and may not even be aware that it’s there; its function is to operate behind the scenes to connect people, content and events. The people can be anyone from colleagues and managers to customers and business associates. The content can include business records, forms and documents as well as blogs and professional publications. The events can range from project and sales meetings to white boarding sessions and performance reviews.
Making Office Graph connections can be eye opening, Keitt says, and increase the effectiveness with which business professionals work with each other. At the same time, joining forces and sharing expertise becomes easier and more natural, as formal meetings and introductions get swept aside.
But as Microsoft looks to make these connections more ubiquitous and more central to how professionals work, it requires more data than its own customer base can provide, and gathering external data—from sources such as LinkedIn—becomes increasingly important. “Microsoft [is trying] to help knowledge workers make better determinations about what’s going on in their business environment,” says the Forrester researcher. This, in his view, was why Microsoft was willing to make LinkedIn its largest acquisition to date.
Such enhanced connections have the potential to take many forms. For instance, LinkedIn profile data could help Office users learn more about other meeting attendees from the invitations in their Outlook calendars, or help members of Yammer groups locate people with the skill sets that they need.
“Microsoft now has access to data from more than 433 million LinkedIn members, of which one-quarter are active users,” notes Sheryl Kingstone, research director for business applications at 451 Research. The more data that’s plugged into a machine-learning environment, she says, the more accurate the outcome. By incorporating the world’s largest professional social network into Microsoft’s family of business applications, it becomes possible to correlate people’s backgrounds, interests and abilities and make intelligent recommendations based on hundreds of different data points.
Microsoft is betting that this sort of empowerment will greatly enhance knowledge worker productivity, making the Office Graph irresistible to businesses.
It may also eliminate what Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella describes as the current split between tools employees use to do their jobs, such as Microsoft’s Office programs, and professional networks like LinkedIn that connect them with colleagues and other resources.
“Productivity loss due to users having to switch from one application or activity to another costs employees valuable time,” explains Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of consulting firm Leader Networks and a faculty member at Columbia University. “Research shows that it takes a couple of minutes for users to re-orient to the task that they’re engaged in. That represents very significant productivity loss. The idea of a convergence and an integrated system has the potential to increase productivity and reduce friction in the system.”
From the standpoint of improving office worker productivity, one of the most obvious opportunities, she notes, is email—which currently takes up 30% to 40% of the average professional’s work time.
“This acquisition,” DiMauro maintains, “could make email a thing of the past. We won’t have to rely as extensively on text-based communications and will be able to communicate with larger groups without always having to establish the context. For many discussions this means being able to begin the conversation midstream.”
DiMauro cites a complex engineering project with team members drawn from different fields and global geographies as an example. Today, each time a new subject-matter specialist is recruited by such a team, the group must interrupt its workflow to bring the new member up to speed.
But under the professional network paradigm envisioned by Microsoft, new contributors could join such a group at full stride, having gleaned the necessary background on the project and fellow team members from the matrix of connections that a combined Office Graph and LinkedIn social graph would provide.
Concludes DiMauro: Merging Microsoft’s Office Graph with LinkedIn’s social graph could enable knowledge workers “to connect with the right colleague, customer, partner or supplier at the right time.” And nowhere could this combination be more potent than in the way it stands to transform how companies recruit new talent and manage their employees.
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