Will a platform strategy help Microsoft Teams win the long game?

As the summer started this year, Microsoft continued to deliver its vision for making Microsoft Teams more extensible by 3rd party developers to enrich the collaboration service’s experience. These extensions make Teams more customizable, contextual, and integrated with other digital tools, and therefore more efficient and convenient for the user.

Microsoft is very much on a roll with Teams, is rapidly improving it and adding features, and has generally seized on the global shift to remote work during the pandemic to gain momentum in the categories that Teams plays in. While it’s not a new decision, as Microsoft delivered on the early Team developer platform in 2018, it’s now reached a maturity level that is now to starting to sustain a large 3rd party developer audience.

The decision to make Teams a full platform in its own right might puzzle some industry watchers who have tracked the dubious history of turning collaboration tools into their own software platforms. And it will surely be a more difficult concept to get behind for communications and IT teams who are charged with making Teams successful in their organizations.

The latter is interesting in particular, because the product owners of most collaboration tools in enterprises view them almost entirely as point solutions. Having 3rd party integrations to deal with just adds management overhead and complexity to the owner’s plate from a training, support, and governance perspective. I’ve long sampled audiences of digital collaboration leads about 3rd party integrations, and most of them are fairly lukewarm about using 3rd apps or extensions for the aforementioned reasons.

Yet there is undeniable value in integrating adjacent systems directly into communications and collaboration tools. Work today is so fragmented across apps that centralizing it more is beginning to become an imperative. As I’ve long argued, collaboration tools are actually a natural home for digital workplace integration, as it’s the connective tissue between people and knowledge as well as systems of record and systems of engagement. Files are a primary example of a valuable connected digital assets and are supported officially right within Teams. 

But what about the dozens of other apps that a worker uses during the day? Many of them have collaborative context that would be convenient to have right in Teams (think expense report approvals, working on a project across various apps, supporting a customer, responding to an RFP, collaborating on a marketing campaign, etc.) all without leaving Teams. 

In fact, Team has long had an internal app store where users can browse through hundreds of different 3rd party solutions, then begin using those applications from right within the Teams experience. They then can access data and receive notifications for key events from those external systems. Team users can even create and edit data that goes back into the underlying external applications. They can just work in Teams.

Seeing Teams as an Operating System for Work

Frankly, embedding 3rd party apps into collaboration tools is far from a new vision. For example, it was famously attempted many years ago in the then-popular collaboration tool Jive. But it has actually been delivered on perhaps most successfully by Teams uber-competitor, Slack, who has well over one thousand such integrations today that are probably the most widely used of any collaboration platform currently.

At issue in taking advantage of the power of an increasingly extensive open platform like Teams. As Tim O’Reilly once famously said, “a platform beats an application every time.” The real obstacle is really a matter of a mindset. Namely, that what you have in the basic Teams feature-set is just the beginning of a journey. That to get the rest of the value (and really, the majority of the value), you must use the platform as it is intended. This means extending the platform either yourself, or more likely with the help of others who have already done so. These are typically commercial software developers who are hoping to ride the coattails of the vast audiences that have gathered around the giant platforms that have been created by companies like Microsoft over the years.

Microsoft understands the platform game extremely well. it has even developed monetization strategies so that those integrating their apps with Teams can benefit directly from the large ecosystems of users within it. Microsoft wins when it can connect its developer audience with its user audience. The latter can make the collaboration tool they use in Teams far richer and more powerful than they ever imagined at first. A quick tour through the apps integrated within Teams shows the enormity of the possibilities.

Offering a Platform Where a Tool Is Expected

But there is one central challenge in such platforms strategies. They need buy-in from those that control the application within the organization. This is usually the IT administrators or steward of the platform in other groups (comms, sometimes HR, or even marketing.) They groups must regard Teams as a platform in a way the realizes that simply having Teams is just step 1 of a long journey to bring together the power of other applications under its umbrella to realize a better, more efficient, and more capable digital workplace.

When I conduct reviews of platform strategies for collaboration tools, one of the first two questions I ask is a) how easy is it for organizations to turn off the apps, and b) how often do their customers do this? Certainly Teams has rather sophisticated controls for controlling end-user access to apps, so that in environments where you perhaps don’t want so many apps easily accessible, you can easily turn them off. In my experience, far too many admins do this right away, putting off access to 3rd party apps until they get the resources and time than often never comes.

The reality is that Teams has matured to a degree where it has numerous points of extensibility, from team-based apps, personal apps, configurable tabs, messaging extensions, webhooks, and much more. The ship has sailed on whether it’s going to be a platform or not. In fact, managing Teams as a product that is a platform is many times harder than managing it as a tool. There has to be a significant payoff in terms of ROI for this strategy to make sense. 

Taking Teams to a Strategic Audience

In one sense, it’s clear the calculus is that Teams is a clear winner in the industry. It’s far superior to Skype for Business that it replaces. It’s managed to gain global uptake, adoption, and respect in the market, with gasoline added to the fire by the pandemic and the resulting mass shift to remote work. Despite some usability and complexity complaints that I hear consistently from end-users and CIOs I speak with, it’s a highly capable tool for the most part. It’s going to be an overwhelming presence in the market for the foreseeable future, not the least because it’s an integral part of Office365.

No, the real question is if Microsoft can unlock the problem that has held back so many platform strategies in non-operating system level products. Salesforce has had a similar drag on its otherwise excellent AppExchange. Namely, system administrators don’t want the management, delivery, and support overhead of an operating system when they are expecting a point-solution that is quite a bit easier to manage. Users must also be trained to take advantage of this.

One serious potential solution is simply to market Teams from the outset differently, as the incredible collaborative Swiss army knife that it really has become. Then sell it to groups within organizations that understand the strategic value of platforms. This means getting it into the hands of digital employee experience leads, digital workplace strategists, and other senior roles charged with bringing the richest and most integrated possible set of solutions to their workers. Instead of only a messaging and video calling solution.

The good news is that digital employee experience is very much in play in 2020. Implicit permission exists to paint far outside the lines. This is the year in which the rules of the game for collaboration platforms can be and have been changed like no other. The digital workplace has never been a top ten organization priority in any of the many years I’ve been tracking it. But it is now. Now is the time to educate the market on why strategic platforms like Teams, deployed well with users trained properly for its full capabilities, will create a simpler, more friction-free, better organized, and enabling digital workplace of the future.

Additional Reading

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