Microsoft Viva Topics Module: What You Need to Know When You Need to Know It

As I described in an earlier blog post, Microsoft’s new Viva comprises four modules: Topics, Insights, Learning, and Connections. Let’s take a closer look at the Microsoft Viva Topics Module and explore its implications for the Digital Workplace.

Microsoft Viva Topics brings the “intelligent” to AI.

According to Microsoft, “A topic is a phrase or term that is organizationally significant or important. It has a specific meaning to the organization, and has resources related to it that can help people understand what it is and find more information about it.” These topics can be projects, events, acronyms, products, fields of study, and a variety of other items.

Powered by the AI of Microsoft Graph and Project Cortex, Topics strives to be that assistant we all wish we had, providing the information, resources, and connected people we need – exactly when we need it. When fully enabled, Topics will underline certain subject or topic keywords in messages and content in Teams, SharePoint, and, eventually, across the entire O365 universe.
Clicking that hyperlink surfaces a Topic Card with a description or definition and relevant files, people, and terms. Behind every Topic Card is a Topic Page in SharePoint with even more information.

Underpinned by the Microsoft Graph

Viva works because the Microsoft Graph connects users and their interactions in the O365 platform (at a technical level, it’s a REST API that provides access to the data). Microsoft’s Project Cortex can read those contributions and reactions and build a database of topics and relationships between topics.

While Viva Topics will recommend Topics and relationships based on the data it pulls from the Graph, admins in an organization can also curate these Topics by suggesting relevant people, files, sites, and terms.

Admins can also manage the sources that Topics pulls from. Topics respects each asset’s privacy and permissioning, so each user only sees what they have permission to see.

The use cases for Microsoft Viva Topics are not hard to imagine.

In every organization, there is “insider information” known only by those who work there (or only within a department or project team). In some organizations, it is the incomprehensible acronyms; for others, the mysterious “Project X” titles. Others still may boast technical jargon specific to their products or processes.

Here are the properties that Microsoft Viva will initially classify into a topic:

  • Project
  • Event
  • Organization
  • Location
  • Product
  • Creative work
  • Field of study

Keeping straight all the titles, acronyms, alternative names, and definitions for all these can be overwhelming even for the most knowledgeable veteran; for the newcomer it’s an absolute labyrinth. Worse, some of the contextual knowledge held by long-term employees is never captured before they leave the organization. Topics saves all this knowledge and provides it when relevant.

Help with more than just onboarding

For businesses, Viva Topics will be more than just a cool onboarding feature for new hires. According to Microsoft, “the average employee spends more than an hour a day searching or recreating information that already exists in their organization—more than triple the time they spent just five years ago.” Topics aims to reduce that significant waste by bringing relevant information to where folks are working – in Teams.

For example, Viva Topics has looked at our recent content and suggested the following topics: Powell Software, Digital Workplace, and Minimum Lovable Product. The first is our software partner, the second is half our business, and third is the topic of an upcoming webinar.

I know these things but an employee from the Digital Marketing half of our business may not. She (or a new employee) can click on a Topic card and learn more about how we define “Minimum Lovable Product” without having to spend time searching and sifting through the results.

It’s about the people — and their expertise.

One of the Topics features we’re most excited about is Topic experts. In our Digital Workplace work, we hear time and time again from businesses that searching for the right person is one of the key activities they hope their intranet can replace.

Often, a well-structured directory is one of the most utilized features of a successful intranet. In fact, one of our customers had us build specialized pages in SharePoint so they could highlight the specific expertise across the company.

With Topics, the Graph knows who is working on which content assets (right now, only in the O365, but soon Topics can pull from 130 sources like Salesforce and ServiceNow). If somebody is often associated with a certain subject (say, Project X or A.M.U.A. [Another Made Up Acronym]), the Topic Card will feature that person’s profile. Clicking the profile enables a user to connect with that expert to ask questions or get help.

Another useful feature is the “ask a question” option. When users have a question about a particular Topic, they can pose that question to the Topic. If Topics can glean the answer from the resources it has identified already, it will provide the answer. If a human answer is needed, an expert can respond and the answer becomes part of that Topic’s scope of knowledge.

But wait, pump the brakes a bit.

There is certainly a lot to be excited about with Topics. However, we see some potential pitfalls:

  • Patience required: Creating and curating Topics is not immediately rewarding. It takes time for the Graph to sift through your content and begin to make the right connections.
  • AI needs a helping human hand: The Graph will get better and better with time at determining important Topics and relevant resources. But the more an admin can curate, the better. This is an additional task that will likely fall to someone (there is a call for a dedicated knowledge manager here) who will have to make room on an already full plate.
  • It’s only as good as what you feed it: Like so many things in life, Topics is only as good as the information that goes into it. Topics will grab onto content that is well-structured—with proper metadata like tagging, keywords, authoring, and file names— better than unstructured content. Otherwise, Topics runs the risk of being the graveyard of the irrelevant and outdated.
  • AI is not work-political: As David Levanda points out in his excellent article, people interpret and value information differently. Viva Topics can’t discern the very real political factors that may make one topic definition or set of resources carry more weight than another.

If these pitfalls are avoided, Topics has a bright future. We’d all like an assistant who makes us feel and work smarter, reduces time spent looking things up, and connects us to the right people.

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