A Product Development Journey

From Chicago to Las Vegas in 4 years

We demoed the first release of our behavioural analytics tool for SharePoint Online (and for Yammer) at the very first Microsoft Ignite conference in Chicago back in 2015. It actually feels a lot longer ago.

We were excited. We were perhaps first to market with an enterprise class offering in the space. And with so much noise around an imminent mass migration to ‘the cloud’, we were confident we would leave the conference awash with opportunities.

We were wrong. Within a year or so there were quite a few organizations who wanted to know that we had a SharePoint Online/Office 365 analytics product. But only because they had a determination to move there at some point. And wanted to be sure we would be able to support them as and when they did. But there was typically no definitive timescale. Rarely an immediate need. And there never seemed to be an actual budget. And maybe, by the time they were ready, Microsoft would provide great out-of-the box analytics? Or not.

Also, around the same time, Microsoft changed many of the APIs that our Online product was leveraging. Which broke some of its functionality. (Oh the joy of ‘collecting pennies from in front of the stream roller’!) Meaning a significant and expensive re-engineering job.

Collecting Pennies from in front of the Steam Roller

Which we didn’t do.

Instead we went back to doing what we do best (comprehensive behavioral analytics for Portals/Intranets built on SharePoint Server) for the people who need it most (security-sensitive organizations with a medium/long term commitment to an on-premises infrastructure). For example, international Law Firms, Insurance Companies, Health Service providers and Government Agencies. And, by the way, that continues to be a successful strategy for us.

Then, around 18 months ago, we started talking again to large enterprises about their interest in, their readiness for and their key requirements of a SharePoint Online/Office 365 Analytics product. In other words, rather than listening to ‘the noise’ and imagining it would tell us the scale and nature of any market opportunity, we would ask real people what we should build and when.

And what did we learn? Well, you won’t be surprised to know that it’s no longer just noise. Most large enterprises now really are moving or have moved to Office 365. In whole or in part. Not an elegant mass migration. But real enough.

In terms of functional requirements there were also no surprises. A change of platform doesn’t mean a change in the business case for an Intranet behavioural analytics tool (you’re flying blind without one), the range of stakeholders it must support and the use cases it must be able to address. Meaning prospective customers would be happy if our tool for SharePoint Online/Office365 was functionally very similar (and with the same richly visual Microsoft Power BI reporting experience) to our on premises product.

Focus on Privacy and Security

The surprises from our research were around just how much our ability to handle Security and Privacy concerns would influence any purchasing decision.

  • Many multinationals with operations in the EU/EEA are fearful of GDPR and what that might mean for ‘workplace analytics’. And some large organizations operating purely within North America see employee privacy becoming ‘a thing’. To be clear there was absolutely no consistency in terms of what that might mean and precisely what GDPR/Privacy Policy support our tool should offer. Yet we would somehow have to offer a ‘solution’.
  • Generally (and sometimes in the specific context of GDPR) there were always questions around our proposed product architecture and any associated data storage/security issues, ISO 27001 certification, data location etc.

To be clear, to deliver a depth of analytics functionality for SharePoint Online similar to what we deliver for SharePoint Server is a seriously non-trivial endeavour. But our very clever developers have done just that, leveraging many of Azure’s PaaS features in the process.

But our research told us that it wasn’t about fancy functionality, as long as our product could address the obvious use cases around user adoption and engagement.  It was much more important to come to market with strong answers to questions around Privacy and Security.

And so to the SharePoint Conference,  May 2019

Wind forward to the recent SharePoint Conference in Las Vegas. Exactly 4 years on from Ignite. And to the (re)launch of NGAGE for SharePoint Online.

First and foremost we’ve come back to market with a product that is only hosted in customers’ own Azure subscription.

We understand the appeal of SaaS to many organizations. Especially to SMBs. And so we know we won’t be chosen by everyone. But at least our medium/large enterprise customers will know they are in full control of their own data. Where it’s stored. How it’s protected.

Secondly, our product ships with a super-flexible GDPR/Privacy Policy Configurator.

  • You can control the visibility of a Consent Manager
    • For example, you may only want it pushed to employees associated with offices based in the EU/EEA.
  • You can edit the Consent Manager
    • to inform employees of your Purpose in Processing their Personal Information in this context
    • to confirm the user’s Right of Access, Right of Erasure and any other important aspects of your Privacy Policy
  • You can define ‘Anonymity
    • In NGAGE Administration you can choose to only hide/pseudonymise specific AD fields in Analytics reports – for example User Names and Email Addresses. In this scenario, if there were a business requirement, it would be possible to infer or otherwise identify a specific user and their behavior.
    • Or you can render a user completely and permanently ‘Unknown’ by not allowing, at source, NGAGE to capture and process some or all their Personal Information.
    • You can apply either form of Anonymity (or No Anonymity) at Organization level or by User Office Location

For what it’s worth we believe (in GDPR terminology) there is a ‘Legitimate Interest’ in processing non-sensitive employee personal information in the context of intranet analytics. But, as with all things GDPR, there are a lot of grey areas and nothing has been tested in law. And we categorically do not offer advice. What we do is make it simple for customers to configure our tool to be coherent with their GDPR Compliance/Privacy Policies. Whatever they may be and however they evolve over time.

So that’s been our journey. So far anyway. From Chicago to Las Vegas in four years. It’s early days. Merely the end of the beginning of what we’re doing around Office 365. And I would add that demand for our SharePoint Server/on premises products remains strong. But we’re certainly hopeful that building and positioning a product on the back of real-world primary research will mean we’ve got the focus and the timing right – second time around.

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