Microsoft followers might have experienced some confused by the recent Office Groups announcement:

"Office 365 Groups are a shared workspace for email, conversations, files and events where group members can collectively get stuff done."

Why the confusion? Because Microsoft already has a workspace for collaboration, SharePoint team Web sites:

"SharePoint team Web sites provide a place on the Web where your team can communicate, share documents, and work together on a project. You can create a separate team Web site for every project your team is working on."

Sounds pretty much the same, no? So what are the differences between these two tools and more importantly, which is the right one for your project? 

The answer is ... it depends. While each offers great capabilities, they are best used for different kinds of collaboration.

All Collaboration is Not Created Equal

Organizations use a variety of collaborative strategies to get work done. At the two extremes are ad hoc collaboration, which occurs when colleagues band together informally to work on small, short-term or transitory projects. An example of this would be working together on a new product release or preparing for a marketing event.  At the other end of the spectrum is structured collaboration, which plays a role in larger, more systematic projects where team members need to coordinate steps and work in an organized manner. These projects are often defined by business initiatives such as records management, project management, knowledge retention, case/client management, etc. 

Both of these collaboration styles have different characteristics, therefore, the tools used in each case should be different. 

Here are some guidelines to help you decide which tool best suits your needs.

Collaboration Characteristics

The characteristics that define ad-hoc and structured collaboration can be seen in the table below: 

Lavenda Table 1

Ad-hoc collaboration is all about self-organization and enabling flexible groups to work together. Structured collaboration is characterized by the need to find information quickly from a large data set, across a broad set of information sources.

Collaboration Facilities

Since each ad-hoc and structured collaboration focus on different business goals, the facilities needed to support each will naturally differ. The following table contrasts the main facilities

Lavenda Table 2

It goes without saying that today, both types of collaboration need to support "anytime, anywhere" work, for the worker in the office and on the road.

The Right Collaboration Tools for the Job

With an understanding of the characteristics and facilities for each type of collaboration, we can recommend the appropriate Microsoft tool for each job:

Lavenda Table 3

Note that Office Groups are supported only when working with Office 365. Organizations that still use Microsoft tools on-premises are limited in their ability to take advantage of these new tools.

Mixed Collaboration

Ad hoc and structured collaborations define two extremes on the collaboration spectrum — so these hard and fast rules don't always apply. Most often, workers perform both types of collaboration — holding ad-hoc conversations on the one hand and sharing important documents that need associated metadata to help find them at a later time. The good news is that there are great Microsoft tools for each, but it might take a bit of practice to figure out which ones work best for each case.  

My Office 2016’s Dirty Little Secrets presentation from the recent European SharePoint Conference 2015 can offer a deeper look into the capabilities that Office Groups provide.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  Daddy-David