Delve, Office Graph must transcend Office 365 to be revolutionary

Microsoft faces a long, bumpy road to extend the info discovery app and machine learning engine

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.

"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."

Early adopters like Delve but recognize its current limitations

Delve has proven already useful in certain scenarios and contexts, and its potential to become much more powerful is clear. Right now, however, it's far from being a "must have" essential tool. That's the consensus from a handful of early adopters interviewed via email for this article.

"This will become my homepage on Office 365 very soon, but for now it is a 'nice to have'," said Benjamin Niaulin, SharePoint Geek at Sharegate, an ISV in Montreal.

"Finding my content is suddenly much easier with Delve," said Martin Kleynhans, owner of Media Surge, which develops, integrates and hosts various types of sites and applications and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Like Niaulin, Kleynhans is optimistic about its future. "As it grows and we share content, this will grow and people will start to leverage the functionality," he said.

Elio Struyf, senior SharePoint consultant at Ventigrate in Belgium, recently switched jobs and Delve has helped him with the "onboarding" process.

"Delve really helps me to find relevant and important information, as well as connecting with my colleagues and providing insights of the work they are doing, focus areas and which projects [they are] currently involved in," he said. "Another plus about Delve is that it proposes this kind of information: I do not have to search for it. That means that I can instantly discover the most popular information inside my organization. This makes it easier to learn the environment and navigating through it."

He's looking forward to the availability of the Office Graph APIs. "It will have a lot more potential once we start to look on how we can link other applications to it," Struyf said.

He would like to have more control over Delve and more visibility into its inner workings. For example, he would like to be able to tell Delve it's off base with certain information it displays, so that it's not making the decisions purely on its algorithms. "It would also be nice to know why certain documents are appearing on the page. This could give you insights in why other documents are not being shown," Struyf said.

Joel Oleson, director of search strategy at Boston-based BA Insight, which develops search applications and technologies for SharePoint, said that with Delve he's more aware of activity in his company's SharePoint environment.

"I'm now following more of what the company is doing across departments, not just in my area of focus," he said. "I really find the discovery useful. It's a great way to start my day when I'm trying to understand what's happened since I last started using SharePoint."

Oleson thinks Delve would benefit from more pre-defined search filters and faceted navigation. "I often get disappointed when the scroll stops. I think it would be great to have infinite scroll when I'm really doing research and want to see things from a time perspective.  If I've been away for a week I'd like to filter on the last week for example," he said.

Like Struyf, Oleson would like the ability to manually fine tune Delve by telling it "to ignore certain areas" and he shares Gotta's concern about the inadvertent exposure of information to people who shouldn't be able to view it.

"I get worried about seeing invoicing documents in finance that I probably shouldn't be seeing. I think there are some tweaks to security that will need to be made shortly. The better that search gets, the more it exposes gaps in permissions and security," Oleson said.

Meanwhile, Laco Vosika ,director at Becloudsmart, a reseller and implementer of Office 365 and other cloud software in Perth, Australia, is already eager to tap Delve via mobile devices, whether via native apps or via a mobile browser version.

Microsoft has big, long-term plans for the Office Graph technology

When asked how Microsoft envisions Delve and the Office Graph working when they're fully developed, say a year or two from now, Cem Aykan, product manager for Delve at Microsoft, indicates that the temporal outlook of the question may be too limited. "It's an ongoing journey," he said.

Because Delve and the underlying Office Graph are cloud services, they will be continually tweaked and extended in an organic way, and decisions on what features to add or change will be based largely on user experiences and feedback. The plan for the Office Graph is long term, Aykan added, so Microsoft will continue improving it five years from now and beyond.

"It's hard to say exactly what will happen a year or two years from now," he said.

What's clear is that Microsoft plans to deepen the Office Graph's access to additional content and user behavior signals from Office 365 and other on premises and cloud software from Microsoft. In addition, Microsoft plans to roll out APIs so that the Office Graph can interact with on premises and cloud applications from third party vendors and developers.

"We'll have a very strong extensibility scenario," Aykan said.

But he's quick to point out that, even at this stage, "we've got a great start for our Office 365 customers," meaning that Delve and the Office Graph are already proving themselves useful.

Microsoft also plans to add more controls for end users, so that they can tag and categorize content from within the Delve interface, as well as alert admins about files whose access rights settings need to be adjusted. There are also concrete plans to provide access to Delve via mobile devices through support for mobile browsers.

In the end, the goal of Delve and the Office Graph is to help people do their jobs better, faster and more efficiently by providing them with the information they need to complete their tasks and projects.

"Everyone today is dealing with information overload," he said. "It's a constant struggle for users."

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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