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Can you reclaim your email with Microsoft Office graph tools?

Mary Branscombe | March 3, 2015
There's little competitive advantage in running your own mail server anymore; that's one reason Office 365 is growing so fast. But with tools like Delve and Clutter, Microsoft is keen to position it as a way to get more value out of communications -- especially as the anti-email movement gains credibility from the popularity of enterprise messaging services like Slack.

If you could see the documents your colleague was preparing for a meeting before you got to the room, you might have a much better chance of having a useful conversation. And being able to find the documents for the meeting you were at last month, by seeing what the people who were there have shared with you, can save a lot of time.

Initially, the drawback was that Delve worked only with documents in SharePoint and OneDrive for Business, so it only helped teams who shifted to online document sharing. But most people still exchange most of their documents through email, especially when they're working with someone at a different company. Delve just got a lot more useful because it now finds documents that are email attachments. When you open the document, you also get the conversation you've been having in email on-screen (using the Office Online and OWA Web apps), so you see things in context.

However, Delve doesn't show you all your email attachments — just those from people you've recently been in conversations with. That's useful, as long as you're having those conversations somewhere the Office Graph can find them; Microsoft says Delve will soon look at Yammer and "additional content from across Exchange."

Delve can also find videos, as long as they're in the Office 365 Video service. When it first came out this service looked like a very niche system for organizing company video content. It seemed that it would only really be useful if people started using Microsoft's new tools like Office Mix and Sway to create things that are more like apps and websites and videos than documents. Actually, it's more of a proof of concept for the "next-generation portals" that Microsoft is hoping will replace some of the clunkier options in SharePoint.

To organize the content they find and share in Delve, without going back to SharePoint, users can create Pinterest-style "boards." Curating information in a board will turn into building a portal, and this is where only the most enthusiastic employees are likely to find value. So far, Delve works best as a personalized search system, and only if you can get people to search on a cloud service rather than in their familiar email client. And changing user behavior is hard.

Clutter, Delve and services like these also only work if you're adopting cloud services. It's not just that they're branded Office 365 services; the Office Graph and the machine learning tools that drive it need too large an infrastructure and too frequent updates to be feasible to run on your own servers. If you're making the shift to Office 365 already, however, you now get the side benefit of making email more useful as well as well as making it cheaper and more reliable to run.


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