How Microsoft Themselves Use SharePoint to Help 45,000 Employees Learn Better

Thought leader interview with Jim Federico of Microsoft on how Microsoft use SharePoint internally for learning. Jim is a Sr. Director of Operations and Platforms at Microsoft, responsible for training and readiness for the customer facing roles at Microsoft.

Jim, what is your background?

Microsoft - Jim Federico

I spent 13 years running technology and product strategy for SumTotal Systems. I started in learning technology developing and then managing a product called Ingenium (Jim and I first met back then) at a company called Meliora Systems. We sold that company to Asymetrix. We took that company public in 1998 and rebranded it as Click2learn. This company eventually became SumTotal Systems after a merger with Docent. The products I managed and helped design still live within Sum Total Systems’ current suite. After a 12 month stint at a start-up where we built an analytics solution for large strategic consulting organizations, I joined Microsoft 5 years ago.

What is your role at Microsoft?

I am Senior Director of Operations and Platform for what we call the Readiness Organization in Microsoft.

I am responsible for a variety of things including reporting, quality, tools & platform, technology, innovation and the operational services necessary to deliver nearly 2 million hours of training per year to 45,000 employees. This includes product and solution readiness which contains technical, licensing, industry knowledge, compete, and go-to-market readiness as well as professional skills training that we primarily deliver within a curricula framework we call Academies.

How does Microsoft use SharePoint for learning?

We’ve got a notion at Microsoft of “first and best”, which essentially says that it’s our job to use (and occasionally misuse!) products ahead of customers and better than any customers. This makes two things happen. One is we can take what we’ve learned and share it with our customers. The second is we make our products better by finding any problems – often before products are released to market. For example, the Windows 8 Consumer Preview was released recently and the very next day a substantial portion of Microsoft employees were already running the beta.

I believe we’re the world’s largest SharePoint implementation. From a training perspective, we use SharePoint in a few interesting ways.

We’re just wrapping up a project to build a SharePoint search experience for training. The outcome is that Training becomes discoverable from across the intranet. This is a really simple thing to do and I encourage all customers running SharePoint to consider doing the same.



The screen shot to the right is of our SharePoint search experience. Notice the facets to the left that allow for quick  filtering of the catalog by taxonomies that are meaningful to people looking for training.

One benefit of this approach is that we are able to provide employees with a single training discovery experience even though we have two primary learning management systems in service of employees. With the SharePoint search scope, we have both LMSs being indexed in the same way, we have a common taxonomy that makes up the filters that learners search, and so we’ve unified searching across multiple LMSs, and we’ve brought training to where the people are, which is often better than forcing them to go directly into the LMSs.

I suspect that could be a quick win for a lot of people, as that’s the sort of thing SharePoint is good at – searching in external systems.

Yes, the investment involved is really very small, from a technical perspective. You can do this with a variety of techniques, the one we used was very simple – we wrote a query to write out a single file that ends up becoming a SharePoint list. The list gets indexed by SharePoint once or twice a day. And SharePoint knows how to index SharePoint lists, so there’s nothing complicated about it.

You can do this in more sophisticated ways, but this technique works fine.

Lots of people I speak to want to use SharePoint for knowledge management and aggregating and making information easy to find. I suspect a lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to index external systems like this with SharePoint search?

Yes, we’ve taken the LMS out of the ‘walled garden’ as it were, and made learning a proper ‘intranet citizen’.

What else do you do with SharePoint for learning? microsoft-Academy-screenshot_thumb

The cleverest thing we’ve done with SharePoint is a site we call internally “Academy”, you can think of this as YouTube for the enterprise. We’ve done some white papers on this in the past (see for example here). It’s a podcasting platform, an executive communication platform, a training platform, a social networking platform, an expert-finder platform, it does all of those things for us. (See the screenshot right.)

It really leverages some of SharePoint’s unique strengths. We’ve put a podcasting experience in front of SharePoint that resembles YouTube with little squares that show a snippet of the video, star ratings, the name of the author, how many times it’s been downloaded and played. Content is accessible via a browser, via an RSS reader, can be easily downloaded to Windows Phone via the Zune software and we’ve recently released a Windows Phone app. In fact 30% of the content is being consumed from mobile devices – people browse the content on their Windows mobile phone and play it there.

I think that you let SharePoint users see the learning available to them and take it in a SharePoint web part?

Yes, we created what we call landing pages for learners in SharePoint. We built these in Silverlight because we wanted it to be cinematic, with animation, and it’s really easy to host Silverlight in SharePoint. It pulls content and the content structure and completion status from the LMS and marries that with the profile of the user who’s logged into SharePoint. Thus, if you or I looked at one of these landing pages, what we’d see would be different depending on our profile. You might require different training than I do, and we might recommend different training depending on job roles and geography. It takes the profile from SharePoint and presents a unique view. When the user wants to engage in the course, they click through and end up watching the content player from the LMS, or can also download and take it offline.

We’re in the process of improving this by building a Windows 8 app, with a Metro design, a touch-first app, that is on top of SharePoint. It will be available as an internal-only application for Microsoft employees and will become the primary way that Microsoft employees consume training. We’re also in the process of re-building our content player, using HTML5, making it suitable for touch mobile devices. One of the things we’re keen on in Microsoft is making an immersive experience, for instance you click on a course and it plays in the window you are in. The trend in Windows 8 is that controls are hidden unless you need them, the chrome of the experience fades away, with the content in the forefront. We’re also designing our user interface for touch and figuring smart ways of integrating this with SharePoint and our LMS.

Are you running the new version of SharePoint under development (version 15) internally or do you use SharePoint 2010 internally?

Microsoft is running SharePoint 2010. There are areas that are working with SharePoint 15, but it hasn’t been rolled out across the company. In the training organization, we’re experimented with it and we’re building our strategies around how to leverage some of the new capabilities in the context of training. I suspect that within 18 months, most of the platforms I’m responsible for will be running in the Cloud and will leverage Azure and Office 15.

Another thing we’ve built internally is something we call OfficeTalk. This is a custom application that is essentially Twitter for the enterprise. It has the notion of hashtags, which allows you to keep track of conversations. There’s a web part that allows you to integrate it with SharePoint sites. It’s getting quite a lot of traffic. There’s also a Windows Phone app if you’re not in front of your PC. (You can see some more info on OfficeTalk in this article.)

A lot of the SharePoint sites we’ve built have a little OfficeTalk web part off to the side; that has a semi-synchronous conversation happening, in the context of the page you’re looking at. For example, if I’m looking at a SharePoint site about Windows 8, there will be an internal conversation running off to the right of the page, of people dialoguing about Windows 8. We think that’s pretty clever, and I’d expect similar capability to make its way into future Microsoft products. As you might expect, we prefer that some conversations happen within the Microsoft Firewall so it’s important that we provide employees with a proper – meaning secure – means of collaborating.

I know there is a lot of interest (for example within the Masie Consortium) in this area. What guidance would you give other companies looking to get value for SharePoint for learning?

My guidance to my peers in the industry is to take the training to where the people are. Often what people have to do is to drop what they are doing as a knowledge worker and “take a sabbatical” to go to the learning management system. And it doesn’t dawn on most employees to go and do that. Most employees don’t fully differentiate mentally between what’s training and what’s not. Content and community get blurred in the mind of learner.

Our job is to unify it all, and unlock learning content in your LMS via APIs and expose it, for example, in SharePoint.

How do you deliver assessments with SharePoint?

We have three modes of assessments we can call from our LMS. The assessments are available from SharePoint, but are running within the LMS where the SCORM APIs ensure data is being tracked.

– Standalone assessments

– Assessment wrapped around online training

– Assessment wrapped round virtual/instructor led training

We have built our own tool that we use to develop online training and assessments. We did that partly as we had our own unique requirements and partly because we wanted to deliver in Silverlight. The unique requirements primarily enable a degree of adaptively sophistication that I don’t believe exists in standard eLearning development tools. We’re currently in the process of re-releasing the system to deliver HTML5 content. From an assessment standpoint, the tool is not as sophisticated as systems like Questionmark.

Do you see SharePoint in the long term as competing with learning management systems or more as a hybrid?

For the foreseeable future we’re going to have both a LMS and SharePoint. One of the strengths of an LMS is that it can help us administer the business rules around training, especially around instructor-led training. There’s an immense amount of business rules to administer. For example, we set up a class which has minimum and maximum capacity, we reserve certain seats for certain audiences, we have a cancellation policy, we have a charge-back policy, we like our approval workflows, we set up pre-requisites, etc. etc. etc. There are so many business rules that we leverage every day from our LMS that rebuilding it would require a significant R&D investment.

The way I think about it is that because our LMS provides a rich set of capabilities we need to run the business, it frees up my team to focus on delivering innovative experiences and creating new modalities.

Will there be learning improvements in future versions of SharePoint?

Anything my team learns from using SharePoint to train Microsoft employees, the SharePoint product team benefits from. I can’t say what’s in or out of particular versions, but I advocate for learning needs to the SharePoint product team and they are very aware of learning scenarios.

One more thing I’m passionate about is what we’re doing on Windows 8. I’ve attached a screen shot of a solution we call Role Guide. This is a touch-optimized Windows 8 Metro style app that presents tailored roadmaps to Microsoft employees based on their role, region, manager status, and many other attributes. It also provides a fantastic search experience (integrated with our LMS) and includes an ‘in-experience’ SCORM content player that looks great when playing our HTML 5 content. To my knowledge, we’re delivering a bunch of industry firsts in this solution.


This article was first published by John Kleeman.

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