an abundance of tools
PHOTO: Jack Douglass

If you are new to Office 365, you will notice very quickly that there is no shortage of tools available to you. This abundance can be exciting and overwhelming for an organization looking to roll out these tools in an organized and well-governed fashion. As a consultant, I hear this from my customers over and over. They often are using Exchange and a bit of SharePoint but are clueless where to begin with the rest. 

Does this sound familiar? Take the following steps to get on the right track.

Effective Office 365 Use Starts With a Plan

To use Office 365 effectively, you need a plan. And as with any planning exercise, you should start with your goals and requirements. Typically, if I am doing this exercise in a meeting, we (go a bit old school and) create a Venn diagram on a whiteboard. It usually looks something like this:

communication, collaboration, business process in Office 365

Pause for oohs and ahhs. (Thanks SmartArt!)

After creating that artistic masterpiece, I hand out sticky notes and we walk through the group’s must-haves regarding current content and processes. Next, we brainstorm ideas for what they hope to achieve by utilizing these tools. I use the three categories of communication, collaboration and business processes because I feel they are what best correlate to the tools that are available in Office 365.

A Venn diagram is an important piece of this because a lot of the requirements will overlap and visualizing that is key. We may have a requirement that needs both communication and collaboration, or a requirement that requires collaboration around a business process. We need to see where that overlap is happening so we can properly map the requirements to the best tools. Which brings me to the next step: beginning the process of mapping those requirements and goals to the appropriate tools.

Let’s look at some of those tools and how they fall into each of the three categories.

Office 365: Tools for Communication

The obvious first option for communication in Office 365 is email. Much to our dismay, email will be the main form of communication for years to come, despite the fact that many have looked to other tools to make communication within a team a bit simpler (and to remove some of the clutter from their inboxes).

After email, there is the SharePoint collaboration platform. Sharepoint can be placed into each of the three categories in the Venn diagram. As a tool for communication, what SharePoint has always done well is give organizations a good platform for building intranets. In addition, we can now use Sharepoint to create communication sites. These new templates allow for the sharing of news in a visually compelling layout. End users can also quickly browse through all of the news items they are interested in by clicking the SharePoint app in the Office 365 app launcher.

Office 365 intranet

Communication sites are great for companywide news, but what if you are looking for communication tools for a smaller group or team? That is where Teams and Yammer can come into play. Teams may at first glance seem like more of a collaboration tool, but it also offers a modern interface that enables users to have conversations about specific documents or projects. This is another case where seeing the relationships between communication and collaboration requirements in the Venn diagram can be helpful.

At this point, I typically recommend Teams for groups that don’t have existing or heavily used SharePoint team sites. Yammer, on the other hand, could be great for groups that have, and will continue to use, SharePoint team sites but need the threaded discussions that Yammer offers. When it comes to communicating with external users, Teams does not yet offer great functionality but Yammer can support that today.

Once again, visualizing the requirements and how they fit into these categories should simplify the process of narrowing down the tools.

Office 365: Tools for Collaboration

SharePoint can play a big role in collaboration. Sharepoint communication sites will continue to be a strong part of the collaboration story for Office 365, but Teams can support collaboration as well. Teams can be used in conjunction with a SharePoint team site to meet collaboration and communication goals in a way that wasn’t possible with previous iterations of SharePoint.

If you are interested in project-based collaboration, a great tool to use is Planner. While not as complex and feature-rich as other project management tools on the market, Planner is simple and can make a lot of sense for a small team trying to track a project and all of its tasks. It also can easily be added as a tab in Teams and be managed from one interface.

When you are discussing collaboration requirements, here are a few guiding questions that could be helpful:

  • What percentage of your collaboration will project-based, and what percentage will be general team collaboration?
  • Are there existing collaboration tools that work well? (SharePoint 2013 team sites, for example.)

Office 365: Tools for Business Processes

When you start to think about tools for business processes, SharePoint should once again be at the top of the list.

The other tools that could be used for business processes are often connecting to or working with data that is in SharePoint. An entire book could be written about the questions to ask when planning to move a business process into Office 365. The overhead of requirement-gathering for business processes is often why such exercises are postponed to the end of a cloud migration project. One of the biggest questions should address what the process is now. Does it already exist in SharePoint somewhere with outdated technology (i.e. InfoPath forms) or is it something still done manually? Once those issues are sorted out, then you can begin looking at the tools.

PowerApps is a business application tool that is starting to get a lot of attention. It allows citizen developers to use a minimal amount of code and get a fully functional application that can be connected to many data sources. The ease of integrating SharePoint and PowerApps seems to improve each day. PowerApps isn’t an exact replacement for other tools, but it is certainly something to explore because it can provide a lot of value and, most importantly, can be used by a mobile workforce.

Flow is an automation tool that can work in conjunction with a lot of other web applications to save time and frustration when working through a business process. For example, if your sales team is using Teams to collaborate, you can have Flow post a notification letting them know when a new lead is added in Salesforce. Flow has tons of connectors and can really help tie all the tools used in Office 365 (and beyond) together. In fact, going back to the Venn diagram, one of the final things I do is use a dotted line to connect requirements where I think a Flow could be used to make them even more efficient.

Microsoft Teams capabilities

I hope this helps you lay the groundwork for getting the most out of Office 365. Learning to use the various tools in the Office 365 suite takes time and planning, but if you execute well, these tools can have an enormous impact on any organization.