March 3rd, 2021
A decade ago, coming from the positioning of a developer I previously claim to be, Microsoft entering a market would have been seen as validation of the market’s potential, but certainly not a meaningful challenger in the space. Sure, it would have garnered an interest in the polo-necked, sweater-wearing corporations who breathe Access databases and store all their PowerPoint's on their Exchange server, but this audience was not the innovative one.
But things change, but often not to the extent that we have seen with Microsoft under Satya Nadella.
Whilst retaining the corporate audience of yesteryear, they’ve slowed dragged their economies of scale laden customers into an innovative remote working environment, whilst also appealing to the technology driven early-adopters with feature rich elegant new products and perfectly thought-out acquisitions.
They’ve retained the soul of many child organizations (think LinkedIn or Github) and re-invented other spaces (think Teams or Visual Studio Code). To move a juggernaut the size of Microsoft from legacy-tarred stability to fresh-faced agility is a phenomenal feat, and its recent stock market performance reflects this wider adoration.
With all this, it is certainly worrying enough to have a competitor the size of Microsoft leaning into your sector. That is amplified exponentially, however, by the simple fact that the professional development and education technology sector is ripe for disruption.
We’re forever caught up in slow moving and expensive platforms, all focused on implementing learning standards (where the latest - xAPI - is nearly a decade old) that its users don’t understand or care about. Their pricing models are opaque and unfriendly, and their configuration and integration costs are astonishingly high. Struggle your way through this, and you’re generally hit by a slow implementation time, poor customer support and a dot-com-boom-era influenced interface.
Then, in walks Viva.
Integrated into the environment you likely already use (Teams) with an interface that looks more today than a face mask on a adult, and direct integrations with LinkedIn Learning (amongst others), it provides a simple way to connect your employees from the tools they already use to the professional development they didn’t know they needed.
The concept of the Employee Experience Platform (EXP) is robust, especially upon the backdrop of skill shortages, role re-training, and remote working. Spreading professional development across an employee engagement and human resource bagel is an innovative approach to integrate learning into the modern workplace whilst providing real value to each team member.
Microsoft may still, however, get this wrong.
Viva as a product is broken down into three separate component products, each sold or installed separately and serving an explicit purpose. I’ve taken some time to digest what they offer in isolation, and summarised them in short form here:
The main component part of Viva that is available at launch, Viva Topics aims to categorise and combine content and experts to make it easy for people to find information and put knowledge to work.
Is it project management in disguise? Is it a skills framework with associated files and experts? I am undecided, but at £3.80 per user per month with an annual commitment, I am not willing to find out.
Furthermore, under the hood, it appears to run upon SharePoint. This makes technical sense based upon its dream to be integrated throughout the Microsoft suite of products longer term, but it may be its largest innovation restriction too. The more I look at Topics, the more it feels like a SharePoint homepage on a corporate intranet with a new gloss of paint.
What feels in essence like a social network for business, information regarding Viva Connections is - at this point - sparse. There are promising aspects to it, including organization controlled messaging, customised branding, and HR integrations, and I do hope it is tightly integrated with Viva Topics to really provide value.
This product feels a great fit for the communication tool of Teams, and falls a little bit outside of the learning sector and more into employee engagement. It’s an approach to formalise the informal, and presents content to the users in home surroundings.
One main takeaway though (and encouragement for competitors in this space) is that, again, SharePoint is mentioned A LOT on the brochure site, which doesn’t fill me with transformative energy.
Viva Connections will give everyone a personalized destination to discover relevant news, conversations, and the tools they need to succeed. Shape an inclusive corporate culture where everyone has a voice.
Information here is again sparse and restricted to canned animations, but even from those bitesize clips, I can’t help but feel that Viva Learning has missed the mark.
Rather than being an artificially intelligence driven learning solution, content from vendor partners appears in Netflix style rows, where each row is a particular partner’s content. This approach is taken already on various Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs), and always felt to me at odds with how a learner actually wants to learn. Do they want to search PluralSight, EdX or LinkedIn Learning? No, they just want the most applicable content surfaced (regardless of provider) to them at just the right time.
Other features - like the ability to view the learning content in Teams - are nice, but this currently appears to be limited to LinkedIn Learning, and sharing content to others in your conversation has already been provided by Totara Engage in a very similar way.
The remaining features appear to replicate a light learning management system, and whilst welcome, may fall short when a full native learning system is to be replaced.
Workplace insights and data driven analytics are a hot topic right now but, despite this, Microsoft launch Viva Insights, which is nothing to do with this trend. Viva Insights is a personalized analytics dashboard that supports well-being, collaboration, and productivity.
The virtual commute is a relatively ground-breaking idea, and it will be interesting to see how this idea holds up when the world returns to some form of normality. Other concepts, such as being able to assign time to learning or protect time from your calendar are user interface based refreshing on calendar management behaviour that is tough to teach.
I'm yet to see how the analytical side of Viva holds up, but I feel frustrated that Insights as a module name isn't what I expected it to be - maybe Viva Dashboard is too cliché?
Is Viva Topics project management or a skills framework with associated files and experts? I am undecided, but at £3.80 per user per month with an annual commitment, I am not willing to find out.
I believe though that with Microsoft Viva, the total is greater than the sum of the parts. With Teams being the home and current base of many organisations, bringing together the integrated elements of Topics, Connections and Learning is a natural fit, and one that I feel will bring to life the concept of an EXP.
If you’re a full Microsoft shop already, I can certainly see the value, and with numerous content library integrations available upon launch, it’s a simple decision for a Learning & Development (L&D) or Human Resources (HR) team to make.
However, these two points may ultimately be its undoing:
With Topics starting at £3.80 per user per month, one can only imagine that the full solution is reaching around £10 per user per month, which is not pocket change within organisations the scale of which Microsoft normally sees as its customer. The sum of the parts might ultimately pitch the total too high.
If you’re not already reliant upon Microsoft, I believe this solution is too integrated to use without a full (and expensive) switch being required. What it offers at this stage doesn’t currently feel transformative enough alone to coerce the switch.
I wish Microsoft Viva well - and there is a lot to like - but I hesitate between excitement and disappointment that this might not quite be the disruptor I wanted it to be.