Microsoft has created no small amount of confusion with its rollout of Office 365 Groups. The reason? Office 365 Groups capabilities overlap with functionality already provided through SharePoint Team Sites and Yammer groups, which are other products in the Office 365 suite. A number of expert blog posts have tried to sort out Microsoft’s strategy, but the big questions for customers are, “What are Office 365 Groups?" and "When should you use the new Office 365 Groups for collaboration and when should you continue to use traditional collaboration features?”

Let's clarify what Office 365 Groups are all about, and when you should use them versus SharePoint or Yammer collaboration features.

What are Office 365 Groups?

During the past year, Microsoft has rolled out the concept of Office 365 Groups. According to a recent Microsoft white paper entitled, “An End-to-End Experience with Groups,” Microsoft describes the motivation for groups as follows: 

“Groups brings together People, Conversations, and Content across Office 365. By providing an integrated experience that link together email conversations, file storage, and calendar event management, Groups create an integrated experience for teams to focus on group activity. Groups can be public to enable information sharing within your company, or private for teams that deal with sensitive subjects.”

At first glance, Office 365 Groups seem to address the challenge of connecting all your documents with your email messages, which sounds an awful lot like Exchange distribution lists.

What are Groups?

Reading further, the Microsoft white paper confirms that groups are really the next incarnation of Microsoft Exchange distribution lists:

“Group conversations are stored in a single Exchange Online mailbox, separate from individual users' mailboxes …."

So what do these groups allow you to do to connect email, documents and people?

Email

For email, groups enable you to “easily send an email to a Group from your inbox, just like using a distribution list.”

Documents

In terms of documents, Groups provide limited support for documents through OneDrive for Business, where you can create “a dedicated document library connected to the Group. Familiar OneDrive for Business document management actions are available in the Group document library, such as document creation and upload.”

There is no corresponding functionality to connect SharePoint documents to groups. This continues to be done via SharePoint Team Sites.

People

Officer 365 groups incorporate profile information about the group itself and connection to profiles of its members.

Bottom Line

Analyzing the Microsoft white paper, we see that, in essence, the Office 365 Group is an Exchange artifact, managed from the Outlook client. 

What About SharePoint and Yammer?

SharePoint Team Sites and Yammer groups are not integrated with Office 365 Group capabilities. These artifacts are stored in SharePoint and Yammer, respectively, and they behave quite differently from Office 365 Groups. In SharePoint for example, documents can contain comprehensive levels of metadata — information that is critical for classifying and finding important information later on. So it’s no accident that Office 365 Groups only allow you to connect to documents in a special OneDrive for Business folder (because OneDrive for Business folders also do not provide metadata capabilities). 

As such, the Office 365 Group represents a completely disparate infrastructure from SharePoint and Yammer.  Sharing documents, conversations, newsfeeds and list items is fundamentally different from sharing Outlook email messages, and each are stored in separate data repositories. Microsoft is essentially providing several parallel mechanisms for sharing information with teams of people. 

Why?

The reason is almost certainly historical. Exchange email-related infrastructure (distribution lists, document attachments, people, conversations) developed independently from SharePoint-based team collaboration infrastructure (rich document metadata, list items, collaboration profiles, discussions). Trying to connect the two is not merely a technical problem, it is a conceptual problem that would need to be addressed from the ground up.  Matching two disparate collections of email/document data sets is daunting.  And with hundreds of millions of Exchange and SharePoint users, this is not something Microsoft will likely be able to address in the near-time frame. 

Which Group is Right for Me?

Given this reality, the big question for customers is “Which group mechanism is right for me?” For small or transient projects, simple Office 365 Groups will probably suffice, using Exchange Group folders to store emails and OneDrive for Business to store project documents. However, for longer-term and medium-to-large scale projects, you will need the enterprise strength of SharePoint metadata and Team Sites to tie all the ends together to: 

  • Classify documents using metadata so users will be able to later find them.  
  • Store email messages as classified documents so they can be found later for audit and KM purposes. 
  • Use SharePoint Team Sites to allow project team members to share tasks, announcements and contacts in a way that scales to meet enterprise requirements. 
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  snigl3t 

Title image by Anne-Lise Heinrichs