This content is part of the Conference Coverage: Microsoft Ignite 2021 conference coverage

Microsoft Viva gets OKR app, stresses employee privacy

Microsoft Viva gets a new OKR app, but an underlying and ongoing message at the firm's recent Ignite conference was about Viva's employee privacy protections.

Microsoft Viva is getting a new module -- objectives and key results -- to set and track goals from organizations to individuals. But something that seemed to get more attention at the vendor's Ignite conference this week was Viva's employee privacy rules.

Viva, which Microsoft describes as an employee experience tool, can present employees with an analysis of their workday based on scans of their emails, calendars, Teams activity and other inputs collected by Microsoft 365. That kind of data collection and analysis may make some workers wonder how their employer plans to use such information, and, if the HR department fails to provide clarity, may create a risk for the company.

Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice, said employers need to communicate to their employees that they only plan to see aggregate employee data. If they don't do that, they may see employee disengagement, turnover and face the possibility that employees will start working "outside the system because they don't want to be monitored and tracked," he said.

That fear may explain why some of Microsoft's presenters at Ignite highlighted and carefully explained Viva's privacy protections.

"When we talk about private personal insights, we truly mean private," said Erik Anderson, a Microsoft group program manager, speaking at Ignite. "Personal insights that are surfaced to an individual are only for that individual themselves. Nobody else can see that data -- not their manager, not their leader, not their admin -- only the individual itself."

Objectives and key results app

The objectives and key results (OKR) app comes from Microsoft's recent acquisition of Ally.io, an OKR app developer.

The OKR function is Microsoft Viva's fifth module in its employee experience platform. The other four modules are: Learning, a personalized learning feature; Topics, which sorts organizationally important information; Insights, which gathers data from emails, meetings, calls and chats to help employees assess productivity and well-being; and Connections, a communications tool.

The OKR app module will have a central hub for individuals, teams and departments to access and update goals, review progress and see a shared view of the team's priorities, said Seth Patton, general manager of Microsoft 365 and Viva product marketing, at the virtual conference.

"When people see how they're making an impact, and when they're aligned with the rest of their team, they stay engaged and achieve better results," Patton said.

The kind of monitoring capability available in Viva has gotten more attention by HR departments since the push to remote work due to COVID-19.

Kropp described Viva as both an employee surveillance tool and a productivity enhancement tool. It can enhance productivity by reminding employees, for instance, that they need to get something done by a particular date. But the way it helps produce productivity improvements "is by monitoring what you're doing," Kropp said.

Microsoft's statement

The real question that we should be asking is, 'At what level are companies actually looking at the information?'
Brian KroppChief of research, Gartner HR practice

"The real question that we should be asking is, 'At what level are companies actually looking at the information?'" Kropp said.

In response to questions sent via email from SearchHRSoftware about whether managers can access an employee's Viva reports, Microsoft stated: "Managers do not have access to an individual employee's insights. All personal insights in Microsoft Viva Insights are private and accessible only to each individual user. Default safeguards like de-identification, aggregation, and differential privacy protect individual privacy."

Kropp deferred to Microsoft on the specifics of how Viva works, saying the firm "would know the specific details better than me."

But, he added, "any data that is collected at the individual level still exists somewhere. If they say it is impossible to get to, I don't have any evidence that says that they are wrong."

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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