How do I ask you? Let me count the ways – Multiple ways to have conversations in SharePoint 2013

Different ways to have conversations when you are using SharePoint 2013

For the past four months, I've spent a lot of time focused on conversations and communities. I have a client in the early adopter program for SharePoint 2013 and we've been piloting a replacement for their current listservs with SharePoint 2013 community sites. As Microsoft's Richard Riley told me at the SharePoint Conference in November, when it comes to different ways to have a conversation, SharePoint 2013 offers an "embarrassment of riches." While true and in many ways really interesting, I think the myriad of choices for conversations when it comes to SharePoint 2013 might make things more confusing for users, especially those who are struggling with "social." I've been working on some guidance that I hope others will find useful.

One of the challenges with this guidance is that as with anything new, the "embarrassment of riches" is going to be very confusing and possibly overwhelming to many users. Even trying to break it down to a scenario that says "if this is your objective, then this is the best approach" will likely be difficult to consume. If you are going to roll out these new conversation options in your organization, you will need to spend some time thinking about your communications, adoption, and training strategies. While it is possible that you will see some "viral" adoption and users that will gravitate to one or another conversation method - it's best not to count on viral adoption and even better to try and steer certain types of conversations to the method most likely to get your desired outcome, especially if the outcome is knowledge preservation or retention. The best advice I can share from my experiences to date is to start small with an engaged community and provide lots of opportunity to give and gather feedback. And, take a look at the table referenced later in this post to see if that can help provide some help into thinking about the best approaches in your organization.

But what about Yammer?

Before I share my suggestions, I'll also note that I was on a quest at the SharePoint conference - triggered by the opening keynote and the focus on Yammer. My quest was to try to understand, given the overlap between Yammer and the SharePoint 2013 newsfeed, when organizations should use one versus the other. I posed the question both in general and specifically for my early adopter client to every Microsoft person I could corner. I got a collection of answers that actually didn't seem either right (a definitive statement recommending the use of Yammer for cloud based deployments and the newsfeed for on-premises, despite the current lack of integration between SharePoint 2013 Online and Yammer) or satisfying ("it depends"). My conclusion on this topic (at least the one that I think is right form my client right now) is that the best decision is to stick with the native SharePoint 2013 capabilities for all of these features and wait for Microsoft to do the integration with Yammer. There will be enough change management work to get users to leverage anything other than email for online conversations and to have to worry about integrating two separate environments doesn't seem like a good use of "organizational calories" to me. And besides, I don't think that Yammer will be "outside the box" for very much longer.

Let Me Count the Ways: Conversation Options

If we ignore the Yammer option for the moment, we are left with at least four different ways to have online conversations in SharePoint 2013 in addition to the two others that users are probably much more familiar with - instant messaging and email - for a total of six options that I want to compare. There are still times when no matter what your generation, certain types of conversations should be done in person or over the phone, but I'll leave that topic for another blog post in the future! I am going to also ignore text messaging since it is not only not part of SharePoint 2013, but for the most part, it is also not yet ubiquitous as a form of business communication (though as our kids enter the workforce, that is probably going to change). My six options for online conversations are listed below:

  • Instant Messaging - it's rare these days that I end up in an organization that does not have some type of instant messaging capability enabled and I think it is an important option for online conversations.
  • Email - email has become the most common method for business communications in many organizations and it's not going away. I think it's funny that I can go several days without getting a phone call on my office phone but it's rare to go even an hour without multiple emails - even on Christmas Day!
  • Team Discussion - for the purpose of my comparison chart, a team discussion is a discussion list on a SharePoint 2013 team site where the "community features" have been enabled. Robin Miller, a program manager on the SharePoint Team did a nice blog post about the SharePoint 2013 Community template in August 2012 that describes how the community features work in the new Community site. These features work essentially the same way on a team site, with the only difference being the concept of "joining," which does not exist for a team site. The community features add some "gamification" features to the traditional discussion list, but they also add a much more engaging way to view and interact, so they are definitely worth enabling on your team sites, even if you don't use all of the capabilities.
  • Site Newsfeed - the site newsfeed is a private version of the public newsfeed described below. It lives on a team site and is visible only to people who have access to that team site. It is integrated with the public newsfeed for users who are Members of the team site.
  • Public Discussion - I use the term "public discussion" to talk about a discussion list on an open Community site in SharePoint 2013. While conversations on team sites are private to the team, conversations in a public community are open to anyone who visits the site.
  • Public Newsfeed - the newsfeed is a new feature of SharePoint 2013. Ben Wilde, another SharePoint program manager did a blog post describing the newsfeed and you can read more about it in his post. I think of the public newsfeed as the Facebook or Twitter activity stream inside SharePoint. It is the least private of all of the options.

To try to simplify the conversation options, I came up with two dimensions as a way to characterize which method is best for which type of conversation: privacy and relevance. By privacy, I mean whether the content is for a broad community or specific people. By relevance, I really mean whether the conversation topic is only relevant now - such as a question about where the 2:00 meeting will be held - or whether the topic is going to be relevant "forever" (or at least for the reasonable future or the length of the project) - such as a question seeking the answer to how to set up a new team site. In actuality, I think there are a few other dimensions. One has something to do with "formality." The more formal the communication, the less appropriate any of the SharePoint "social" options will be and the more likely you will need to use email or a face-to-face or phone conversation. Another is more about "reach" - the number of people I want to have my conversation with, one or many. But, I'm trying to make this easier, not harder, so I'm hoping that these two dimensions will help make things easier for most users. The messaging in the picture below really is that if you think about these two dimensions, then you can get to the best option for the conversation you want to start.


If you are the solution "planner" for SharePoint 2013, you will want to think about the different features and capabilities of each of these conversation methods - because there really are more than two dimensions and there are some characteristics of each approach that you may want to promote. To explain the detailed feature comparisons, I created a one-page document: Conversation Options in SharePoint 2013. A variation of this table will be in our upcoming book, Essential SharePoint 2013. The table looks at some of the feature dimensions of each of the different conversation options and is designed to help you think about which option to facilitate or promote with your users. A small snippet of the table is shown in the image below but you can download the complete table at the link above.

After I created this table, I found a blog post by Chris Slemp, a senior solution manager in Microsoft IT. Chris also thought about some of the same options that I did and also created a similar table (I guess we're all trying to figure this out, huh?). Chris presented some additional features to consider so I encourage you to check out his post.

I think that it's pretty clear you will want to spend some time thinking about how these different conversation options will meet the needs of your user community and how you will want to spend some time planning your communications and adoption strategies. I'll have some more specific advice about both of these topics in future blog posts as well as a post sharing the insights of our SharePoint 2013 pilot. In the meantime, I'm looking for feedback about the table and whether thinking about the privacy and relevancy dimensions are helpful so please let me know what you think.

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