diverging paths
Confusion reigns about which of the many collaboration tools Microsoft offers is right for the job PHOTO: Jens Lelie

When Microsoft first launched Office 365 Groups, everyone could understand the concept.

Groups provided a simple way to create a context for sharing information and documents with the people you work with — in many ways an improvement on what SharePoint had promised.

Before Groups entered the picture, team collaboration in Office 365 suffered from the Goldilocks effect: SharePoint sites were powerful and fairly customizable, but were complex for most end users to set up and use. OneDrive was often too simple of a repository for the kind of collaboration teams needed. 

Groups were “just right.”

Cracks in Microsoft's Collaboration Story

A simple file repository that was easy to use with no setup, an Exchange alias for the team that you could create a without petitioning IT, a shared calendar and the equivalent of a community via message board, all provisioned and linked together — this was the vision of team collaboration we had in mind all along. 

And it got even better once Microsoft Planner came into the picture. Planner brought with it a task management and tracking app that was simpler and more powerful than the traditional SharePoint or Exchange task lists. 

These seemed like good times in the collaboration world. But not all was sugar and rose petals — some fractures in the strategy started materializing even as Microsoft’s vision of team collaboration's future came into view.

It started with these questions:

  • “When should I use a Group and when should I use a SharePoint site?” 
  • “Should I use a SharePoint community or a Yammer group?” 
  • “What’s the difference between an Office 365 Group and a Yammer group?” 
  • “Is Yammer going away?”

Adding to the Collaboration Confusion

Recent developments have done nothing to ease this confusion. 

Microsoft recently announced that all Groups would get a SharePoint site. Then we got the news that Yammer groups and Office Groups were merging, and every Yammer group would also be an Office 365 Group. 

Then Microsoft Teams showed up on the scene, and we had yet another way to have conversations with our team members. 

All of this innovation is extremely impressive from Microsoft, especially given the short amount of time it’s taken to release all of it. But the confusion about how workers collaborate that already existed is now even more relevant. 

Yammer is clearly different than Teams, and both are different than the original Groups conversation interface — but how do IT leaders translate what we know to the broad base of our employee populations? How do we give them the clarity that they so desperately need in order to collaborate effectively?

Microsoft Gives Users Everything But the Kitchen Sink

Early on, I had my suspicions that Microsoft may allow us to choose the type of group we could create. For example, if my Group would largely be a social collaboration with the interchange of ideas, I might have opted for a group whose conversations were based in Yammer. If my group was largely going to engage in ongoing real-time conversations, I might have opted for a Microsoft Teams-enabled group. 

But for now, the writing on the wall seems clear: Groups are the central gravitational force of all Office 365 collaboration. I don’t get a choice — I get everything. 

Create a new task management board in Planner and you get a Group. When you get a Group, you get Yammer, a Team and a SharePoint site. 

To confuse matters further, Microsoft recently announced that when you create a SharePoint site collection, it will now automatically provision a Group — whether you want it or not.

A Viral Approach to Collaboration

In spite of my criticisms, I recognize that Microsoft is in a difficult position. 

Asking users to know beforehand how they will best collaborate leads to a whole new set of problems. Call it the “Yammer bug,” but it seems that the viral spread of collaboration across the organization, versus a more controlled approach, aligns more closely with how Microsoft wants to do productivity. 

How will workers ever know Teams can be useful if they aren't put in front of them to experiment with? Microsoft is effectively giving workers the power to make the most appropriate and effective use of the tools in front of them. And this can actually work in some organizations. With a little guidance and some experimentation, users may find ways of working they could not have discovered a few short years ago. 

Microsoft is working hard to try to get this kind of guidance out to the market, though some will still chafe that the world of Office and team collaboration has gotten infinitely more complex in the years since the Ribbon's addition to Excel froze information workers in their tracks. 

You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. And Microsoft needs to keep innovating to stay competitive — the pace will only quicken.

Keep a Light Hand with Governance

So what’s an organization to do? 

The same as always: Understand that governance is not just about control. It’s about creating and communicating policy about how sharing and collaboration should be done, and then creating tools and processes that support users in leveraging the available tools and systems as intended. 

Where controls are available, appropriate or required, they make sense — but do not look to unnecessarily stifle creativity or innovation in how your teams work. Those days are behind us, and history has told us that it won’t work.