Making Use of Loops
It’s an age-old question, and every answer is as clear as mud – “which tool do I use when?” What started as a reasonable clarification has now developed a life of its own. Numerous critiques, countless refinements, and even parody all point to this being the most confusing issue in the Office 365 suite. Every collaboration expert you talk to has a different take on the subject, so there’s no expectation that Joe (or Jo) Average will know what to do.
The Origin of the Loops
To describe some of the collaboration features of Office 365, Microsoft uses the model of the Inner and Outer Loop. It’s a neat way for Microsoft to convey how they expect their technology to be used. If you’re an IT Pro, then you’ve probably seen the diagram many, many times before. And if your organisation is rolling out Office 365, then it’s only a matter of time before someone shows you this PowerPoint slide. It seems to have found its way into most (if not every!) piece of guidance about Office 365 and when-to-use-what.
Apart from looking aesthetically pleasing, why do we need a model of loops in the first place? What purpose do models serve? How can they help us? And is this a good model?
A model is just a simplified version of a real process to aid us in understanding how that process works.
“It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her acts and their consequences.”
In the context of Office 365, the model is there to help us understand which products are suited to communicating with specific audiences.
What Loops Aren’t
Let’s start by getting some misconceptions out of the way.
Firstly, the Loops model doesn’t tell us who’s part of our Inner and Outer Loop audiences. That’s left as an exercise for the viewer, but even that isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it seems. There are times when your Inner Loop is just two people (you and someone else).
Secondly, it doesn’t tell you how often you should operate in the Inner and Outer Loops. Arguably, if the work you’re doing doesn’t have a dedicated ‘team’ and don’t need to keep a handle on the pulse of your wider organisation, then you should quite happily be existing in an e-mail. While that is an extreme example, certain work practices envisage people only using specific internal systems for teamwork, and there is no cultural expectation to be tapping into the broader organisation for collaborative initiatives.
Thirdly, look closely at the title of the graphic: “Where to Start a Conversation”. This guidance is deliberately targeted at the beginning of a conversation. That title often gets lost as people focus in on the pie chart and associated descriptions. While the discussion can start in one place, they can (and do!) move to different Loops. And possibly back to the first Loop. This is nothing to do with the technology – when’s the last time you were on a project and only the people who know about it, even after its wildly successful conclusion, were those who attended the kick-off meeting?
Is It Useful?
Provided you understand who your audience is, the Loops make quite a good model.
If you understand that you need to be collaborating with your Inner Loop, then it’s pretty clear, at least according to the model, that you should be using Teams. Similarly, for the Outer Loop, you should be using Yammer. The guidance is unequivocally clear.
At an advanced level, the MVP community has slightly different guidance on what Teams and Yammer are useful for. However, as a primary starting point for someone who is genuinely confused about which-tool-when, the clear-cut direction from the Loops model isn’t terrible. If anything, it avoids the do-nothing response of choice overload.
What the model does is also give options. At its most basic level, it is educating a broad user base that alternatives to e-mail exist. Alternatives that people may not have thought about or knew they had access to. Opening people’s eyes to the choice of technology that is in front of them is, generally speaking, a good thing. That serves as an antidote to overprecision bias, where there would be no point exploring alternatives if you knew the ‘right’ answer already.
As a Microsoft-endorsed model, it also brings a certain level of credibility. If you’re a change manager rolling out Office 365, then there’s no point in reinventing the wheel on this one. If people want to dive in further, the Loops comes with the backing of an extended discussion on the Tech Community forums, as well as Microsoft’s CEO talking about how he uses it.
When to Stop?
As with all models, it is only useful up to a point.
If you find yourself debating the nuances of who’s really in your Inner Loop, then this is the point at which you’ve already mastered the functions of the Office 365 suite and can use raw intuition to guide your choices from now on. The model wasn’t meant for ‘people like you’, or at the very least you’ve outgrown the simplified assumptions that underpin it.
Similarly, if you find yourself questioning how to transition between the Loops, that’s time to ditch the model in its current form. Remember, it’s where to begin the conversation, not where to keep it. Needing to transition between Loops requires a sophisticated understanding of what Loop you’re in now, and what Loop you need to be in – what information should survive that transition, and what shouldn’t make it through. Not as a secrecy issue, but merely as a matter of being audience-appropriate.
Loops as a Model
Often, we dismiss models as being ‘not for me’. Yes, we all work in unique circumstances, and perhaps the model doesn’t directly address those. That is why Adopt & Embrace puts business value ahead of technology functionality. However, it is incredibly rare that we can’t learn at least one thing from a model, however necessary or simplified that model is. The Loops is one of those – even for the most adept at operating seamlessly across different Loops, we can always do better and sometimes we need to be better at communicating our way of working to others.