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After a rocky start, organizations have started experimenting with what Office 365 Groups can and cannot do PHOTO: Martin Ezequiel Sanchez

For Office 365 customers, the introduction of Office 365 Groups has gone from rocky start to increasing acceptance. 

The feature name initially caused some confusion. The launch of Outlook conversations took the lead in Microsoft marketing efforts, but after some time and backtracking the purpose of Groups became clear. 

Groups are an Azure Active Directory service that creates a single team identity and set of permissions across the various Office 365 workloads, including Outlook, Yammer, OneDrive for Business, SharePoint, Planner, Power BI, OneNote, Dynamics CRM and the new Microsoft Teams.

Now that we have the definitions squared away, the next issue becomes much more relevant for organizations: How does Groups fit into the way you are using Office 365?

You cannot change an architectural detail of this magnitude within an enterprise platform and not have some organizational impact. 

To better understand that impact, and to capture some of the feedback from the community, the team at tyGraph conducted a pulse survey in February to ask people how Office 365 Groups were impacting their organizations. 

While not a scientific survey by any means, it’s always good to see the community’s response to validate our own thinking on the topic, and to hear real-world experiences.

We recently published the full results of our survey, and reached out to some well-known Microsoft MVPs and experts to get their feedback on the data:

Are You Using Office 365 Groups?

Christian Buckley, Chief Evangelist at Beezy, Founder of CollabTalk and Microsoft MVP (@buckleyplanet): According to these results, 82 percent of respondents are using Groups. 

But my response is that if you’re using Office 365, you are using Groups in some capacity. I know that there are customers out there who have gone into the Admin tools and turned off some of the features, or the ability to provision Groups, but Groups are quickly becoming synonymous with the Office 365 architectural model. 

John White, Chief Technology Officer at UnlimitedViz and tyGraph, Microsoft MVP (@diverdown1964): This may represent the demographic polled, but anecdotally you hear “we’ve turned them off.” Well, the dirty little secret may be that they haven’t actually turned them off at all, because 82 percent is a big number. 

How Broadly Does Your Company Use Microsoft Groups?

how broadly does your company use Office 365?

Joanne Klein, SharePoint and Office 365 Consultant at NexNovus Consulting and Microsoft MVP (@JoanneCKlein): I’ve worked with various sized organizations using Office 365 and those in the SMB space naturally gravitate to Groups due to the simplicity of the provisioning process and the plethora of capabilities you get with one.

Also, there tends to be less "container governance" in those types of companies which means few/no hoops to jump through in order to provision a group. This translates into a pervasive use of Groups throughout smaller/medium-sized organizations. 

Based on these results, the majority of organizations are testing the waters and trying to determine where Groups fit within their own environments — this is where my larger customers fall. They are concerned with the lack of information management and retention and are waiting to see what capabilities will be rolling out to address them. Until that happens, they will proceed with caution.

Marc Anderson, Co-founder, President of Sympraxis Consulting and SharePoint MVP (@sympmarc): I wonder if there is a clear understanding of what a “Group” is. It’s a loaded term, as we’ve had SharePoint permission groups forever — which everyone uses. In other words, I think these numbers seem suspect, *unless* people who responded are simply more likely to be using Groups in the first place.

What Are the Primary Ways in Which Your Company Uses Groups?

What are the primary ways in which your company uses Groups?

Chris Slemp, Director of Strategy at CarpoolAgency (@cslemp): I see three categories of responses here, in order of popularity: 

  1. a tool-focused view of groups that values the integration of those workloads that are most visible and integrated (currently storage, calendar, OneNote), 
  2. scenario-focused views – people understand that groups can be applied to multiple scenarios, and 
  3. less usage of other Groups-connected tools that aren’t as visible. 

I don’t think another waffle-like navigation element is the answer, but there should be some way of better exposing all the workloads available to a group.

Anderson: This tells me that there isn’t a single, compelling reason to use Groups, except for “shared storage, calendar and OneNote notebooks.” Given those three things are all available in a plain old Team Site, I wonder what is compelling people to fire up a Group instead?

How Is Your Organization Managing the Creation of New Office 365 Groups?

How is your organization managing the creation of new Office 365 Groups today?

Anderson: No real surprise here, as the governance options are basically nil. I fear that Groups are the new Team Sites in that we’ve got the Wild West of creation going on again. 

The main reason SharePoint was so successful in the early days was that anyone could set up a site, list or library. Few people understood permissions and there was little governance or enforcement. Groups seem to be on a similar trajectory. 

Klein: Seventy-five percent of respondents saying anyone can create a Group is surprising on a couple of fronts. 

First, I can guarantee if you're in an organization with an Information Management/Records Management team, knowing this will keep them up at night particularly if they are operating under strict compliance/regulatory requirements. At a bare minimum, organizations in this category should be applying Group classifications to be able to eventually configure some rigor and control on assets within. 

Second, with end-users allowed to provisions Groups "at will," site sprawl is definitely a problem many of us will start to see in our Office 365 environments. This is why navigation and findability (Delve?) of content living across all of your joined Groups will become more important as time goes on.

What Is Your Biggest Concern About Managing Office 365 Groups?

What is your biggest concern about managing Office 365 Groups?

Noah Sparks, Community Igniter and Strategy Manager, BrainStorm Inc. (@noahsparks): Obvious overlap seems overwhelming until you realize what’s already in use today. Somehow, we figure it out. We lean on those we trust for recommendations. We share solutions that deliver real results. Nurture those who experiment with new approaches and invite explorers to tell their story often and openly.

Slemp: So fascinating that “when to use what” is the top issue. It continues to surprise me that we don’t worry about this question in our consumer lives — we just use what makes sense for us and the group we’re collaborating with — but we’re obsessed by this question at work.

Sue Hanley, SharePoint MVP and Portal, KM and SharePoint consultant (@susanhanley): It seems like the theme of all of the answers is governance (and of course I would say that). Organizing, managing and understanding Groups is clearly important. 

Finding the right balance between allowing users to create the types of collaboration solutions that they need to get work done and managing the creation of those solutions so that we don’t add the risk of unmanaged and unmanageable content should be a critical and important focus area for all Office 365 users. It’s still all about the G-word.

How Would You Prioritize Groups Feature Development From the Following? 

If you could prioritize Groups feature development, in what order would you place the following?

Klein: I agree with both priorities #1 and #2. It fits in with what I'm seeing as deficiencies in Office 365 Groups today for my clients, particularly the medium- to large-sized organizations. 

That said, there are many compelling features of Groups that organizations love and they are keenly watching the new capabilities rolling out to allow them to jump onboard. They want to use Groups — in some cases they just don't feel they can until those capabilities are there.

Anderson: The options that received a low number of “First” votes indicate how early we are in the lifecycle of Groups. There probably hasn’t been much need to consolidate or move Groups around, but it will become really important down the road. 

Slemp: The fact that “nav improvements” is most popular and “finding other’s groups” isn’t points to the lag in adopting a “me vs. we” mindset. 

Better navigation is about making it easy for ME to find stuff that I need to get MY stuff done. Finding other’s groups is about leveraging the wisdom and work of others, making navigation less important. 

I, for one, hope that increasing transparency and making it easy to build on others’ work gets more attention.

Moving Forward with Groups

The consensus from our panel of experts is that organizations need to be much more mindful of what Groups can and cannot do out of the box, and ensure that their own corporate governance and change management standards are being met. 

Office 365 Groups is still a work in progress. However, I think it is moving in the right direction, because it will allow Microsoft to more easily add new features and capabilities into the Office 365 user experience.

See the full results of our pulse survey here, and share your comments below!