You might be using Office 365 without even knowing it

Services like DocuSign and Smartsheet use the Microsoft Graph to pull contextual information out of Office and put it to work where it’s most useful.

Over the years, Office has expanded from the original desktop applications (and their mobile and Web equivalents) and the Exchange and SharePoint servers that add more business features, into full-fledged services. Many businesses treat Office 365 as an efficient way to get hosted Exchange or a cheaper way to volume licence the Office software. But they’re missing out on the advantages of Office 365 being a cloud service; like the Delve analytics that help people find out what colleagues are working on, or the Microsoft Graph API that lets you extract messages, calendar appointments or tasks to use in custom tools and software. That’s how the new Microsoft Flow service lets you build a workflow that sends a text message every time your boss emails you.

Even if you haven’t noticed that Microsoft has been busy unlocking useful information in Office, other services have started using the Microsoft Graph to expose some of that outside Office. It turns out that email might not be the most useful place to see an ‘out of office’ message and your calendar isn’t the only place meetings are important. “Consuming small pieces of data here and there,” as Rob Howard from Microsoft’s Office Ecosystem team describes the Graph API, can be a big help for productivity.

“Context is really valuable for a lot of things. Are you in or out of the office? Are you available? A service can search my contacts and look at whether they’re out of the office, or whether they’re available based on Skype and calendar availability,” explains Howard.

“One of the most common ones we see apps consuming is the directory. How an organization is structured, who your peers are, who reports to you, who you report to; that structure drives a huge amount of business process and you can make that more efficient,” says Howard. “Or who are the people you meet with most and what are the meetings about? Just having access to the most recent files I’ve worked with is one that will find a huge number of use cases. Files in SharePoint and OneDrive, information in Exchange, tasks in our new Planner service; there’s a variety of content and a huge amount of content to drive those apps. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of how intelligence can power custom and third-party experiences.”

If you’re using DocuSign to electronically sign documents and contracts, for example, and you’re using it with an Office 365 email account, DocuSign doesn’t just use that email to send documents back and forth. If you’re sending a contract to someone who’s set an out of office message, you’ll see that message in the DocuSign interface (because it gets it from Exchange Online via the Microsoft Graph) — so you know before you even send the document that there’s going to be a delay. If there’s an alternate contact listed in the out of office message, you can click on the name to send it to that person instead. If no alternate contact has been listed and you don’t have time to wait, DocuSign can suggest other people who were involved in the project who might be able to sign instead (by looking at who else at in the organization was in the same meetings with you).

And even if the person you want is in the office, having DocuSign check both your address book and email addresses you’ve been in contact with recently (again, from Exchange) to make sure the email address is correct can save time and embarrassment.

Just having DocuSign show you a list of the files you’ve worked on most recently — which it gets from OneDrive — is more convenient than digging through your folders, because it’s likely the file you want to have signed will be there.

Microsoft Office smoke signals

There are over a billion meetings every month scheduled through Office 365, says Howard; the Microsoft Graph lets the services you use take advantage of all that information.

Microsoft has been using custom apps built on the Graph internally for performance management and team management, he says, and DocuSign isn’t the only partner that has already started using it in their services. “You can use data from Office, from the Graph to make a really productive experience for managing teams or moving along your business process,” he suggests.

Smartsheet integrates a lot of Microsoft tools into its project management and automation service, like Power BI and Skype; you can go from analyzing the numbers on a project to calling people working on it to get a status report. You can already save email messages and attachments into a Smartsheet project from Outlook, and a new feature will let you attach files from OneDrive to a Smartsheet task without leaving the service.

“Do” is a service for managing meetings, with tools for creating agendas and tracking follow-ups and action items; if you sign in to Do with an Office 365 account, it will automatically pick up existing meetings from your calendar and it uses Exchange Online to get email addresses for the names you tag with actions.

Zapier is an online service that lets you automate Office 365 tasks — like sending email and creating meetings based on triggers from other systems like Box, ZenDesk, Zoho or QuickBase — or pull information into those systems. If you use Meetup or EventBrite to manage events, you can create a “Zap” that makes a new folder to handle all the email about a specific event, or if you’re using Fog Creek’s Trello for project management, you can make a Zap to create new items in Trello automatically when you get email that matches the trigger you create.

Pulling information out of Office using the Microsoft Graph gives you the option of using tools that are more like the popular Slack chat system than email, if that’s what works best for your business — especially on mobile devices. As you’d expect, Howard believes the Office apps still matter: “We think for some tasks it’s important to make the solution a native part of an Office app and we can embed it in a tool people are using to get work done every day, like Outlook or Word. But there are also a bunch of cases where the appropriate tool is something that is not an Office app.”

If you need to sign a document, that’s increasingly likely to happen on a mobile device. What you really want, Howard suggests, is “a tailored app on your phone that’s aware of who you are, what organization you’re part of, what document you’re signing and what the next step in the workflow is — all based on your organization’s data inside of Office. A lot of ‘smarter’ is just understanding the context of the business process; maybe automatically filling out fields in your forms because we know who you are and what business process you’re working on. Here are the documents that are relevant to you, or that you recently received or worked with in Office. On a phone, we've got a pretty good chance of surfacing to you the one document you want to do the signing on.”

More intelligence ahead

Look for the Graph API to expose more and more information in the future. “How people work with each other, the documents and topics that they’re working on — that could help when I’m sharing documents, so I know which users and groups those documents are most relevant to,” Howard says. The Graph doesn’t yet use location but that could be useful (with the right privacy options and controls): “An app could automatically send a message saying I’m going to be late, or it could help with scheduling based on a previous meeting,” he suggests.

Setting up those meetings could get easier too. “Scheduling meetings and resources in general is a really difficult problem; it takes a huge amount of time, especially as people work more and more across organizational boundaries,” says Howard. “Using the Microsoft Graph, I can say ‘here are the constraints, here are the people who are critical versus optional, here's what I want to talk about and for how long’ and it will go and look across all the calendars. There are very few apps I'm comfortable with scheduling meetings in today, because I don’t think they'd take account of who's free and who's busy and who needs to be involved and match up all the schedules.”

What you’re really getting from the Microsoft Graph are fundamental pieces of your business process and your working life that until now have been locked inside Office. You’ll still want to work with them there, but just by writing documents, setting up meetings, exchanging email and using Skype for Business to talk to colleagues, you’re also creating useful signals and insight.

That by-product of getting your job done is so useful precisely because it is a by-product, Howard points out. “If we asked people to fill out a profile it wouldn't be useful because you would get such low engagement. If you needed to go into Skype for Business every half hour and update your presence, it would never work. Because it's connected to signals and looking at my calendar, it can set my status in Outlook to ‘away’ because I'm in this meeting right now — and you can count on that. When we can take the signals from your usage of Office and glean that information automatically, we can get a baseline of intelligence and information across your entire organization, just because you're using Office.”

This story, "You might be using Office 365 without even knowing it" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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