A global Microsoft team runs an 18-hour virtual rally using Skype and Yammer
What does it take to become a global, people-first company? At Microsoft, people are finding out. The End User Services Engineering team (part of Core Services Engineering at Microsoft) supports the apps and services that help all Microsoft employees be productive. With almost 400 full-time employees spanning 45 countries or regions and 11 time zones, End User Services Engineering is one of the company’s most geographically distributed teams.
Figure 1. End User Services Engineering is distributed around the world
The team’s all-hands annual meeting is a key event for these employees, because it offers an opportunity to meet face-to-face, share leadership’s latest strategies, and interact with other team members. However, the widely dispersed nature of the team complicates travel and logistics. Even with the best efforts, some people can’t attend.
The global virtual rally—creating an experience
Headed by Microsoft General Manager Nathalie D’Hers, the End User Services Engineering leadership team tried a new concept for the 2017 meeting: Use Microsoft technology to run a virtual meeting—a rally—that runs continuously for 18 hours so that every member of the End User Services Engineering team could join in for at least part of the event.
Ambitions for the rally
Producing such a rally would be unprecedented at Microsoft. To decide if it was feasible, the leadership team defined what the global rally needed to achieve to be a success:
- Deliver the Core Services Engineering strategy and create clarity around the End User Services Engineering mission by hosting live interviews and prerecorded videos from leadership. Ensure that everyone in the organization understands the company mission and how Core Services Engineering in general, and End User Services Engineering in particular, fit into that mission.
- Generate energy by making the rally as fun as it is informative. Create venues throughout the rally to keep employees around the globe engaged and participating no matter where they are—at the office, at their home office, or on a mobile device.
- Deliver results by demonstrating the inclusivity of the organization. Include every team within the End User Services Engineering organization in at least one activity. Give attendees the means to ask questions, give input, share their stories, raise concerns, and see how leadership responds in real time. Reinforce the sense of community by strengthening local ties and building global connections.
Producing a rally with Skype and Yammer
To meet the goals for the event, the End User Services Engineering team in charge of producing the rally established high-level requirements that included:
- Provide two-way communication. Enable employees around the world to participate in the rally, not just watch. This meant that technologies for the event had to go beyond a traditional broadcast that only flows out to viewers. Attendees need to share back into the live data stream for everyone to see and hear.
- Hold live interviews, demos, and Q&A sessions. Provide a local anchor desk at corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where event hosts can manage the overall sequence of events, conduct interviews and host question and answer sessions with leaders, and where presenters could give demos.
- Support talent broadcasting from multiple countries and regions. In addition to the main anchor desk, ensure that roving reporters and other participants around the globe can present stories.
- Support live demos and pre-recorded videos. The technologies used to produce and broadcast the event must support live demos in local and remote studios, as well as play prerecorded videos.
- Record the event. Capture the entire event and divide the recording into themed segments for viewing later as video on demand.
- Connect from anywhere. All attendees should be able to use familiar productivity tools to connect to the event from home, work, or a mobile device.
To successfully deliver on these functional requirements, it quickly became clear that the End User Services Engineering team needed to assemble cross-functional teams of process and technology experts who could work together to plan, test, and execute this project using the power of the Skype Unified Communications platform and Yammer.
Meet the technology
The rally was pulled together by newly formed workstream teams, regional community leads, and production specialists brought in especially for the rally. They used Skype Meeting Broadcast, Skype for Business, Skype, and Yammer, plus a variety of supporting hardware to achieve the rally goals.
Skype Meeting Broadcast
Designed as a one-to-many broadcast platform, Skype Meeting Broadcast is a feature of Skype for Business Online and Office 365 and was the core technology of the broadcast. It uses Azure Media Services for streaming audio, video, and PowerPoint content, and it uses the Azure Content Delivery Network to cache content at multiple locations for the most efficient retrieval and playback. Skype Meeting Broadcast supports scheduling, producing, and broadcasting events to online audiences of up to 10,000 attendees—a critical scale for Core Services Engineering to reach the global audience.
Skype Meeting Broadcast, which enables high-quality, browser-based adaptive video streaming to nearly any device on any operating system meant that attendees could join the rally from anywhere using any device that could connect to the Internet. Attendees could also use the Skype Meeting Broadcast digital video recorder (DVR) features to pause, rewind, or restart any part of the rally—an important feature for an event that runs nonstop for many hours.
Skype for Business
Skype for Business is the standard self-serve collaboration tool for all Microsoft employees. During the global virtual rally, the End User Services Engineering team used Skype for Business for:
- Live Q&A sessions. Attendees could access call-in queues when they wanted to pose a question to leaders. Moderators selected individuals from the queue, confirmed the quality of their connection, and then passed their details to the studio. To put the questioner on the air, they joined a separate one-on-one Skype for Business meeting that the studio producers merged into the Skype Meeting Broadcast to stream out to all attendees.
- Global café sessions. Up to 250 people could mingle, chat, and share pictures and videos of their work spaces.
Well-known to consumers and the broadcast industry, the consumer edition of Skype was the rally’s primary video conferencing technology. People outside of the studio used it to communicate during the event. Skype transformed a one-way broadcast into two-way communication. Remote participants connected to a Skype video call whose data stream was fed into the studio, merged into Skype Meeting Broadcast, and then streamed out to all attendees.
Yammer is the Microsoft solution for building community and enhancing executive engagement. The End User Services Engineering team saw Yammer as a critical tool for the rally, to enable attendees to communicate with presenters, leaders, and each other throughout the event. Yammer contributed to the rally experience by:
- Promoting spontaneous conversations. With so much emphasis on building community, Yammer was key to enabling attendees who work in different locations to comment on current activity, ask questions, respond to each other’s posts, forge new friendships, and build enthusiasm.
- Maintaining momentum. People contributed to Yammer threads long after the event ended, which helped to extend the rally’s key messages and helped employees and leaders continue to collaborate and share ideas.
- Providing real time Q&A. Moderators monitored the End User Services Engineering Yammer thread. They collected attendee questions and then either presented them live to people on camera or queued the questions for a later scheduled speaker.
- Building community. Attendees used Yammer to share recipes and photos of regional dishes for the cookbook sessions, introduced each other and posted pictures of themselves and their work spaces, and commented on each other’s posts.
The End User Services Engineering team used the following hardware to support the global rally:
- Skype TX/scan converters. The production team at the main studio location used these devices to collect multiple inputs (Skype TX collects Skype calls and scan converters collect Skype for Business calls), merge the data, apply graphical overlays, and then output the integrated signal to the Skype Meeting Broadcast channel.
- Preconfigured laptops. They shipped laptops before the rally to each site where a participant was scheduled to interact with attendees. The End User Services Engineering team preconfigured laptops with the right software and settings to optimize the data streaming back to the studio.
- Audio/video equipment. They used a large array of audio/video equipment for the event, from professional broadcast cameras and mixers in the main studio to built-in webcams on laptops and headsets with mics for remote contributors.
Adding two-way communication capabilities to a broadcast
The most significant technical challenge to the global rally was supporting true two-way communications through the Skype Meeting Broadcast one-to-many broadcast model. Some of the variables the team considered included:
- Determine the number of people joining the event. Skype for Business is a great option for meetings up to 250 people with support for sharing audio, video, desktops, whiteboards, and more.
- Use the consumer version of Skype for basic audio/video meetings. Skype is another option, especially for meetings where the focus is on connecting audio and video. As a free service, this version of Skype doesn’t offer the level of enterprise security, manageability, or Office integration that is available in Skype for Business.
- Use Skype Meeting Broadcast for single-location broadcasts of larger events. Skype Meeting Broadcast is an excellent standalone choice for broadcasting an event from a single location to audiences up to 10,000 people. It supplies built-in, DVR-type controls to pause, rewind, and replay the broadcast. It also supports embedded Yammer and Microsoft Pulse add-ins without the need for additional broadcast hardware.
- Consider partnering with a production studio for large, multi-location events that support two-way communications. End User Services Engineering worked with Microsoft Production Studios, which can use Skype TX and other hardware to tie Skype or Skype for Business feeds into a Skype Meeting Broadcast data stream.
The diagram in Figure 2 shows how two-way communication was achieved using Skype TX and scan converter hardware to capture data streams from Skype and Skype for Business, combine them with the Skype Meeting Broadcast feed, and send that integrated stream out to attendees through Skype Meeting Broadcast.
Figure 2. This schematic summarizes the two-way data flow that Core Services Engineering achieved by using a combination of productivity technologies.
In this example, audio and video of anchors, moderators, and presenters are fed into the main production studio (1). Skype TX combines this feed with a scheduled participant using Skype (2). Any additional graphical overlay is added at the studio, and then the combined signal is sent out to global attendees via Skype Meeting Broadcast (3). Attendees share their enthusiasm, comments, and pictures live via Yammer (4). During Q&A sessions, attendees who want to ask questions can join a Skype for Business call queue (5). When the production team is ready for the next caller, a moderator moves the selected caller to a separate one-on-one Skype for Business meeting that is merged into the broadcast via a scan converter (6). The combination of audio/video feed, Yammer messages, and so on, are displayed on stage so that participants in the studio can interact (7).
By the end of the rally, the entire worldwide organization was energized. Using productivity tools in a new way to support a continuous broadcast offered these benefits:
- Promoted creativity and contribution.
- Supported all regions and time zones.
- Reduced event costs by 75 percent from the previous year’s in-person event.
- Exceeded expectations in participation and community building.
With seven times the number of Yammer threads, and 10 times more messages than were generated in the previous all‑hands meeting, the virtual global rally experience engaged 92 percent of the worldwide Core Services Engineering organization.
Figure 3. The amount of participation in the global virtual rally far surpassed team expectations.
Lessons learned and best practices
The End User Services Engineering team learned some valuable best practices on the way to the virtual global rally:
- Establish community leads at each major remote broadcast location.
- Place a member of the program management team in each workstream team.
- Give remote presenters preconfigured hardware and software to reduce production variables.
- Add redundancy throughout the broadcast chain and offer redundant hardware like laptops, microphones, cameras, lighting, and even network connections.
- Collect questions before the broadcast to compensate for broadcast lags.
- Divide long events into shorter broadcast sessions to prevent creation of large data files that are difficult for users to scan or for IT to repackage.
There is always a risk in trying something new, but producing this global virtual rally reflects the Microsoft commitment to reinventing productivity and business processes, building an intelligent cloud platform, and creating a more personal computing experience—and the result surpassed all expectations. The response from attendees during and after the event has been phenomenal. Using desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and smart phones, people and teams around the world posted photos and videos to share their lives, their work environments, and their cultures. Core Services Engineering leaders offered strategic messages, listened to employee feedback, and responded to questions throughout the event. Some virtual teams even coordinated important charitable work—and had fun doing it all.
For more information
This technical case study is part of a larger narrative that Microsoft has developed to help leaders on their own transformation journeys. See these resources to explore other parts of the story.
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