To deliver on the promise of this new generation of solutions, Microsoft is focused on creating software that addresses specific businesses priorities:
Productivity: Information fatigue is one inevitable result of information overload. We are working to develop tools that help information workers prioritize their work and focus on the tasks that are truly important. At the same time, we are working to create unified communication solutions that provide a single entry point to all of the tools we use to communicate with coworkers and customers.
Collaboration: New meeting technologies will make distributed meetings simple and cost effective, and provide rich tools that enable team members to work together to create documents and plans. In addition, companies will be able to capture all of the interaction in meetings and preserve institutional knowledge that is often lost today.
Business intelligence: Powerful yet intuitive software that supports advanced visualization and modeling of information will be used every day by information workers to find meaningful patterns in the vast sea of data they collect. This software will also help employees use the insight they gain to trigger processes that enable organizations to respond quickly as business conditions change.
Workflow optimization: Smarter workflow software will eliminate friction points that hamper organizational agility. These tools will automate the movement of approvals, alerts and exceptions. They will also have the intelligence to recognize inefficiencies in existing processes and make improvements.
Microsoft is also devoting particular attention to the problem of enterprise information access. In a world where information can be stored on the desktop, the intranet or out on the Web, and where the right people may be located in an office halfway around the world, enabling seamless access to enterprise information is a complex problem.
An ambitious vision, and throwing an awful lot of different ROI scenarios into a single initiative ("It's a floor wax! It's a desert topping!"). Look at the spectrum of companies they're taking on: Google, Autonomy, Tacit Software, EMC, Hummingbird, Business Objects, Cognos...the list is pretty extensive.
Whether or not these companies understand it, and no doubt some of them do, they're fighting for one of the few remaining large scale IT infrastructure opportunities: information management. Until now, nobody has been able to embed structured processes around unstructured data—the kind that lives on desktops, file shares, in email accounts, on web sites, and, yes, in SharePoint servers. The previous pitches for things like enterprise content management or knowledge management all centered around very squishy ROI stories (making your company "smarter") or very limited payoffs (standardizing document-centric and form-centric processes, and making them more efficient). On the other side of the value equation, most information management solutions were too brittle—top-down, role-based, taxonomy-heavy—or too steeped in risky rocket science to really take root. Two things have changed this picture: compliance (not just SOX, but HIPAA, GLBA, etc), and Google.
Regulatory regimes like SOX mean that you can no longer afford to allow information, structured or not, to continue to go unmanaged, and Google (and, to be fair, del.icio.us, Technorati, and a host of others) has shown us that you can manage information from the bottom up, finding implicit structure in the many decisions made by individual users of information every day.
The requirement for internet-like searchability is being smuggled into the enterprise from the bottom-up, too. As Jonathan Schwartz has asked enterprise IT execs, "who decided on which search engine you use?" So the requirements for information manageability are getting more defined, and the big enterprise IT suppliers can see what they have to deliver: easy searchability, without complex or restrictive classification and workflow being imposed on the people creating information.
The funny thing is, the benefits to the enterprise remain the same: companies will get smarter when everyone can leverage their colleagues. Companies will be able to assure compliance with visibility into the flow of information. They will also use the knowledge to become more efficient.
Information infrastructure is the key to making all this happen. It's a high-stakes battle with a number of legitimate contenders. No wonder Microsoft is spending precious capital—time with key CEOs— to make the case that they're in the best position to make it happen.