partially completed jigsaw puzzle
Office 365 offers a number of tools for businesses to get work done, but that doesn't mean you have to use all of them PHOTO: distillated

Do you remember when the geeks referred to Microsoft as the "Evil Empire"?

I was one of them.

I've been working with SharePoint since it was invented, and let's just say we've had a tumultuous and troubled relationship in the years since. Each version had its strengths and weaknesses, but Microsoft seemed to lack a consistent view of the product's main focus — was it a development platform or an out of the box solution for collaboration, document management or intranets? — and clear messaging to support that focus.  

With Steve Ballmer in charge and the subsequent releases of SharePoint Portal Server 2003, SharePoint 2007 and more ... well let's just say that didn't do much to improve my opinion.

But now? I'm a bit of a fan boy.

Yep, that’s right. People may call me out now, but under Satya Nadella’s leadership, the Office 365 product set, including SharePoint Online, is a highly compelling offering. 

However, while I would argue that Office 365 has the focus that previously eluded SharePoint, based on some recent experiences, it seems as if the breadth and depth of the product set still confuses some users and potential users.

Office 365 Groups — The Glue That Binds

Given the pace of change coming out of Microsoft, the content of this article could be out of date within weeks. Regardless, I'd like to look at one of the areas where there's some confusion: the Groups function within Office 365.  

The multinational enterprise I work for, like all such organizations, does not spin on a dime. We are using parts of Office 365, but certainly not all of it (yet). 

As we try to understand how to enable and work with various specific products, our technology division has held two workshop days with expert third-party MVPs, one specifically geared towards Groups and how they impact provisioning and various use cases. It can get a little complex. SharePoint is now in the background as the repository for files for both Outlook-based email conversations and Teams-based chat conversations. And while the term conversations is used for both things, they are not the same. 

So if you create a ”Teams” setup for one of your teams, you also create a SharePoint site, a Planner, and a mailbox and calendar. By setting up a "Teams" you are creating a Group, and a Group has all these assets created for it by default. 

One of our expert guest speakers explained Groups as the glue that holds everything together for a group of people using a group of products or functions. For the techies out there, the Group is also an Active Directory object, so you may prefer to think about it that way.

What if You Don't Fit Microsoft's Vision of Collaboration?

All the conversations around approvals, provisioning and how Office 365 Groups are set up and work led me to a more fundamental question: what if your business processes, or your organizational structure, or medium-sized groups or small tactical teams does not mesh well with the Microsoft vision of collaboration?

Microsoft’s vision appears to be one of a loose collaboration infrastructure where Teams and Planner form the focus for smaller teams, SharePoint Modern Team sites and the new Communications sites fill that function for bigger groups or divisions and Yammer fills in the gaps for enterprise-wide communication and collaboration.

Yammer is supposed to be getting some more love (and serious investment apparently) this year. Hopefully that will include much better, deeper out of the box integration with SharePoint sites, so Yammer will become the one and only integrated commenting platform.

Intranet professionals are questioning how the new SharePoint communications sites fit in a more structured model. These communications sites have no out of the box publishing approval workflow, which opens up a host of potential communications problems. 

It's easy to create one of these sites, and each comes with a “news publishing” function for every department across a large enterprise. If everyone takes advantage of the function, people's personalized SharePoint Online “home” page will soon be swamped with updates, potentially adding to information overload woes. Add to this, unless you cut code for a customization, the comments on those news articles create a silo, as they are part of the page itself.

As another example, when I think about how the legal teams my KM team supports use their integrated Matter and Document Management system, I can’t see how their way of working fits into the new Groups-based paradigm. A Microsoft “Teams” setup per legal team, with a channel for each matter won't fill the bill for various reasons, so more thinking to do there.

However, my KM team could pretty much live in the Teams environment, with various channels of persistent chat, connectors for integrations, tabs with access to SharePoint sites, etc. Teams would cut our email way down, but I would still need Outlook open due to communciations with other groups across the bank.

Office 365 Enthusiast, Plus Pragmatist

Don’t get me wrong. These challenges haven't damped my enthusiasm as to what my team, our division and our enterprise could achieve with Office 365. And a recent SharePoint Saturday Toronto at Microsoft Canada’s headquarters only ratcheted up the excitement.

The bottom line though has to be the same: caveat emptor. Take a step back, consider your information management strategy, think about how you collaborate now, how your collaboration environment supports your business processes, and how Office 365 — including Flow, PowerApps and PowerBI (the less “traditional collaboration” elements) — can add value to these processes. Think about the different compliance and security features that come with the enterprise licences for Office 365 and consider the change management impact of deploying new features.

The Microsoft Office 365 ecosystem has a lot to offer, but deploying any technology “willy-nilly” without the right amount of planning often leads to disaster. Pick the right tool for the right situation, create a plan — and by all means, have fun with these tools!