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Microsoft Exec: Why Work Email Should Be Like Playing 'Halo'

"People talking and working together in real time to achieve a mission -- it's the dream."
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For most people, video games are a mere diversion -- but when Microsoft's chief experience officer Julie Larson-Green looks at her teenage son playing "Halo," she sees the future of work communication.

NBC News interviewed Larson-Green and "chief storyteller" Steve Clayton, both of whom have been at Microsoft for about two decades, about the company's future plans and shifting internal culture.

Microsoft has heavily used the words "productivity" and "productive" to describe its new products and strategies. What does that really mean?

SC: To some people it means getting stuff done. To me it means being creative about how we work in this world where we have infinite devices, but we have this finite thing called time. How do we help people do less, rather than more. That's being productive.

JLG: We're defining it as people-centric. It's not so much about the tools I need, it's about what I'm trying to achieve. And overall, we're not really defining the world in enterprise and consumer anymore. People are people. They do work at home, they do home stuff at work. That's just life.

What does that shift in Microsoft's thinking look like for your customers?

JLG: We talk a lot more now about, what's the human reason someone would care? What's the specific mission for this team, this product, that helps people get the icky stuff out of the way and get to the fun part of life? For example, I should be able to say "send attendees notes from the last meeting," and my [device] knows what that means.

I have a 14-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter, and they expect things to rewind, to be constantly connected and updated, to be searchable. They talk to their friends through Snapchat, texts, FaceTime, Xbox. My daughter thinks of email as mainly for communications from the university, that it's only for serious stuff once in a while. That is so unlike me, and it's hard to break out of your own bubble.

I watch my son play "Halo" on Xbox Live, and that's the best meeting. People talking and working together in real time to achieve a mission -- it's the dream. How can we learn from something like that in the business world? I think you'll see our email service moving that way.

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How has Microsoft had to change internally to launch those kinds of products?

SC: There's a cultural shift at Microsoft around how we focus on the human, how we can test things quickly to solve their problems. It's more of a hacker culture. It used to be about finessing --

JLG: Not only finessing, but testing and testing and sitting down with people and testing. Now we focus on an idea first, make sure it will have fans and engage customers. We launched Microsoft Garage [which gives the public early access to the company's projects and invites them to "tell us what rocks, and what doesn’t"].

You can imagine what it’s been like to see startups launch something and think, we tried that six years ago! And here's why it didn’t work. Or, hey, they did something different and that’s why it worked! But now we have more freedom to try things.

That kind of change doesn't happen overnight at a big company.

JLG: It does start slowly.When you have an existing process, changing that comes from the top -- it comes from Satya [Nadella, who became CEO in February]. We all have this knowledge that if you have an idea, no one is going to tell you no. There's a sense of freedom. There are hackathons. It’s being like a startup but at scale. I spend a lot of time in the Valley, learning about startups. They have this spirit of collaboration, and how can I bring that inside?

We have the opportunity to engage with customers more than we did in the past. We have fewer big corporate rules like, if you're a customer with a problem you go to customer service. Engineers will email them directly. People are pretty shocked by that.

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But it's not all about Satya. The world looks a lot different than it did when [his predecessor] Steve Ballmer became CEO [in 2000].

SC: When I joined the workforce, knowledge was power. People hung on to it. Now millenials share everything. So I can go to a website now and find out the last 50 things Julie's been working on. It’s not this ivory tower, these mandates coming from on high.

You're upbeat about this new era, but externally, people have been down on Microsoft for a while.They see the company as having lost a lot of ground, and that there's a long way to go.

JLG: I understand that's the press. But internally we feel like, we have over a billion customers using our products every day. It might be popular to say we're irrelevant, but we’re not irrelevant to those one billion people. That said, the world is changing. You do need to change and appeal to even more people. But I think it's exciting. A comeback story is always good.