neon sign that says "You'll Get it Eventually"
Microsoft now offers nine collaboration tools which have some overlapping functionality. No wonder end users are confused PHOTO: Nigel Tadyanehondo

“If you’re confused about Office 365 features, you’re not alone,” stated a 2017 report from Avanade entitled, “Uncomplicating Office 365.” No kidding.

It’s no wonder we’re so confused. With the recent rollout of Microsoft Groups and Teams, Microsoft has increased the number of its (overlapping) Office 365 collaboration tools to at least nine, depending on how you count them:

  1. One Drive for Business
  2. Outlook Email
  3. Skype for Business (instant messaging, online meetings, broadcast)
  4. Office 365 Groups
  5. Microsoft Teams
  6. Delve Boards
  7. SharePoint (publishing sites, intranet, team news, document sharing)
  8. Office 365 Video
  9. Yammer

The question about when to use each tool is more than an academic one: it is confusing the hell out of Microsoft’s business users. The confusion has triggered a flurry of presentations addressing the question of “which tool is right for each collaboration situation” at recent industry events. Here are just a few examples

The recent European SharePoint Conference in Dublin included a talk entitled, The Big Question of “What to Use When?”

The Microsoft Ignite Conference in Orlando, Fla. this September had at least four sessions covering the general topic.

Plus, scores of additional Ignite sessions offered advice on how to use specific combinations of Microsoft collaboration tools in concert.

The SharePoint Expo in Chicago in late October included a session entitled Collaboration for the Workstyle of Every Group.

“Which tool is the right one for the job” is clearly a hot topic for business users of Microsoft collaboration products and services. But what is at the heart of the problem?

How to Choose Which Microsoft Collaboration Tool to Use

The realization that Microsoft collaboration tools have significant feature overlap is crippling their ability to maximize collaboration, as enterprise Office 365 customers suddenly have access to too many options to connect with colleagues. When each worker is free to select a collaboration tool of choice, chaos ensues. People don’t know which tool to go to for information, so information gets lost and people drop the ball on important work tasks.

With so many options, it’s not surprising that guidance about when to use each tool is anything but straightforward and expert advice proffered is inconsistent. I have identified the following three approaches experts advocate for deciding which tool is the right one for the job:

  • The Use Case Approach
  • The Project Approach
  • The Persona-Based Approach

The Use Case Approach

The simplest approach tells you to identify the type of collaboration you need and then pick the product that offers the closest set of supporting features. An example of this is shown in a slide taken from a presentation given at the recent Microsoft Ignite Conference:

Office 365 Collaboration Use Case Guidance
PHOTO: Microsoft

According to this methodology if you want to chat with someone, use Microsoft Teams. Need to share documents with someone? Use SharePoint.

While straightforward, this approach doesn’t solve the problem, because it simply maps features to product names. It doesn’t address how collaboration efforts should serve the business. For example, when working on a project, which tools should I use to converse with colleagues and which ones should I use for customers?

The Project Approach

A second approach addresses the business challenge by taking a project-based methodology. According to this approach, the current stage of a project dictates which tools to use. At the beginning of a project, when you are brainstorming with colleagues, use tools that foster ideation, like Yammer, while later in the project, when you are tracking project plans and schedules, use SharePoint to share documents.

The downside of this approach is its lack of continuity and its inability to maintain a coherent project record, since data are spread across multiple repositories. The ability to retrieve data from multiple tools through the Microsoft Graph API will improve this situation, but we aren’t there yet.

a project based approach to Microsoft collaboration
PHOTO: Microsoft

The Persona-Based Approach

A third approach directs you to identify the people with whom you need to collaborate, for example, a small group of close team collaborators, or a wider group of people across the organization.  The former case would dictate the use of Microsoft Teams, while the latter would proscribe Yammer or Outlook, as demonstrated in the following Microsoft slide from an Ignite presentation.

Microsoft 365 Teamwork: Where to Start a conversation
PHOTO: Microsoft

Avanade expands and extends upon this approach by offering the following “What to Use When” tool selection matrix:

What Microsoft Tool to Use When
PHOTO: Avanade

The matrix pairs the size of the group with whom you wish to collaborate (x-axis) with the urgency of the collaboration task (y-axis). At the bottom left of the matrix, non-urgent communication with an individual would suggest sharing a document via OneDrive for Business or sending an Outlook email message. The top right of the matrix, e.g. sending an urgent message to everyone in your company, would suggest using Yammer or Skype Broadcast. For in-between needs, the matrix recommends one of the other nine Microsoft collaboration tools.

A joint Avanade/Microsoft slide (shown below) titled, Generational Preferences at Work takes this a step farther by examining the age of the person with whom you are communicating. The slide identifies preferred communications channels for each generation of worker. The graph recommends, for example, using face to face interactions and email when communicating with Baby Boomers, and using online meetings and instant messaging (Skype for Business and Teams) when communicating with millennials.

generational collaboration preferences
PHOTO: Microsoft/Avanade

Which Collaboration Approach Should I Take?

While each of the three approaches highlights unique value that each Microsoft product brings to the collaborative workplace, none of them offers practical advice about what to use in day-to-day collaboration. Specifically:

  • Is it practical to tailor each communication request to every collaboration partner’s preferences?
  • Will groups really shift collaboration tools mid-project because they have shifted from one stage to the next?
  • Is it realistic to expect users to select a tool based on the urgency of required response for each outreach to a colleague?

The answer to each of these questions is clearly "No." Rather, the only practical approach is for organizations to endorse a (small) subset of all the tools offered and then provide guidance and training for how to use them. For example, most organizations use SharePoint for document sharing and Outlook email for discussions around projects and for task management. Other organizations might add Yammer as a corporate bulletin board.

The most solid advice is to start with a few tools that already work well in the organization, and then add tools using an agile approach. For example, organizations might encourage individual groups to experiment with Teams among themselves, but not expect adoption on a global basis.

Dictating widespread use of more than a few tools sows collaboration confusion that can sink even the most disciplined organization. This has nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with us being human. When you provide too many places to go for information, we become overwhelmed with information overload.

While this approach simplifies part of the collaboration puzzle, it still leaves the problem of having information stored in multiple repositories. When information is spread across multiple repositories, it is hard to find and even harder to piece together to form a coherent picture.

One solution is to aggregate information from multiple tools into one repository, for example, by storing important emails in SharePoint. Increasingly, this is becoming standard practice, especially in organizations that view important emails as document of records, such as governments and customer account management teams. Looking forward, new developments in the Microsoft Graph API will make aggregating information easier over time. It’s something to look forward to. 

In the mean time, if you would like to reach out to share comments, you can reach me via Teams, Skype for Business, Yammer, SharePoint and of course … email.