When Microsoft Teams was announced at the beginning of November 2016, I posted an article that attempted to explain the different social networking products available from Microsoft and the advantages/disadvantages of each. Since then, it has become apparent to me that there continues to be a lack of understanding about what Groups are, what they bring to the table, and where they fall short. This post is an attempt to help clear up some of that confusion.
To begin with, Groups isn’t a product in an of itself, it’s an infrastructure. Specifically, an Office 365 Group is a specific type of group in Azure Active directory. That’s it. They have a few properties, and they contain members, but outside of Office 365 administration or Azure Active Directory admin, there’s really nothing to look at. What is unique about them is that the Office 365 services are becoming increasingly tied to them, and creating one of these groups will provision multiple artifacts in multiple Office 365 services.
The value of Groups is really in the workloads and services that they tie together. This is where it starts to get a bit confusing. The way that I see it, there are currently 9 workloads (team sites, file storage, group inbox, enterprise social, group chat, notebook, plans, calendar, and report workspace) offered by 6 different services (SharePoint, Outlook, Yammer, Microsoft Teams, Planner, and Power BI). Arguably, Group inbox, enterprise social and group chat could all be considered conversation spaces, but my earlier article makes the case for considering them separately. Also, Skype for Business is notable by its absence, but I consider Teams to be the logical successor to Skype for Business.
A summary of the different workloads, and the services that offer them can be seen below.
This is a description of the various workloads offered by the component services, and it’s relatively straightforward. The only overlaps (if my earlier assertions about the different types of social are accepted) are group inbox services being offered by both Outlook and Yammer. Since Groups created and managed by Yammer will be kept distinct from other groups, this shouldn’t be the source of too much confusion.
The picture gets a little murkier however when we talk about the way that users will interact with groups, which is through a client application of one form or another. All the constituent services have at least one client application that interacts with Groups, and several of these overlaps significantly. A full understanding of Groups includes an understanding of all the available clients.
When an Office 365 Group is created, a Modern SharePoint Team site, which is a SharePoint site collection gets created along with it. This site collection is home not only to the Group’s team site, but to its OneDrive file storage, and to its Notebook (via OneNote). The SharePoint home page is focused on site collections, with Group site collections being called out specifically. From here one can search for Groups, pin favourite Groups, access recently used Groups, and access Groups deemed important by the tenant administrators.
SharePoint has two different clients that touch Groups – the standard web interface and SharePoint mobile. As noted above, SharePoint supplies 3 of the core Group workloads so the SharePoint interface is inherently well integrated. In addition to the native interface, the SharePoint web part framework lends itself to further integration, and indeed there are already two Modern web parts that have emerged that tough other Group workloads. The Yammer web part, which is available today in first release brings enterprise social into the SharePoint interface, and the upcoming Power BI allows the embedding of reports into SharePoint pages.
Groups can be created and managed directly in the SharePoint interface, and group conversations are accessed though a Group conversations link. Now, this launches the Outlook Web App to access the inbox, but when Yammer Group integration is rolled out, it will launch into Yammer for Yammer managed Groups.
The SharePoint mobile application is full fidelity, and modern web parts work with it. Thus, the SharePoint mobile app has all the same touchpoints that the browser interface does with one exception. It is currently not possible to add or manage Groups in the SharePoint mobile app.
There is currently no integration of Group chat (Teams), Plans, or the group calendar in either the browser or the SharePoint mobile client.
SharePoint UI integration with Groups
The Outlook web application was originally the only place to go to create Office 365 Groups. Management of Groups is therefore its strong suit and is provided natively. The Group inbox and the Group calendar are also both provided by Outlook (Exchange) and the web client reflects that. The Outlook clients are currently the only tools that allow these two workloads to be accessed natively. In addition to these native workload, the browser client provides contextual like to open the Group Team site, OneNote, OneDrive, and the Group Planner. There is currently no integration between the Outlook browser client and enterprise social (Yammer), Group chat (Teams) or Power BI workspace.
The rich Outlook client included in Office 2016 has almost full feature parity with the browser client. The only difference is that is does not currently provide links for opening the Group Team site, or Planner.
The Outlook mobile app, available on iOS, Android and Windows Mobile is a bit of an anomaly. This client does not integrate at all with Groups. Instead, the Outlook team has published an app on these platforms called “Outlook Groups”. Given that they are known as Office 365 Groups, this name can be a bit confusing. The Outlook Groups app provides native access for the Group inbox, Calendar, and OneDrive files. It will launch the mobile OneNote app for access to Group notes, and it even allows for Group management. It is the only mobile app that allows for Groups management.
Outlook UI integration with Groups
Yammer has historically been a completely separate application, and its user interface reflects that. To date, there is no integration with Groups, but this work has been done, and it will be available shortly. An early build of the Groups integrated Yammer interface was recently demonstrated at the Microsoft Ignite conference in Atlanta.
Groups integrated Yammer client
The integration points can be seen in the right column of the UI. Initially, Yammer will integrate OneNote and OneDrive for notes and file storage respectively, and accessing the links will open the respective web applications. The “classic” Yammer files and notes will be maintained for a period and can be accessed at the top of the UI. In addition to files and notes, both Planner and the SharePoint Team site will be available directly from the Yammer interface. There is not integration at all with the Group Inbox, Group chat, Calendar or the Power BI workspace.
IT will be possible to create manage Groups and add/remove members directly from the Yammer interface. Creation of a Yammer group will spawn an Office 365 group, and while all operations will be performed in Yammer, they will be kept in synvc with the Office 365 Group. It should be noted that Groups that are created in the manner will be flagged as “Yammer managed” as opposed to “Outlook managed” and will be invisible to the Outlook clients. All the other clients will be able to see them however.
The Groups integrated mobile client has not been shown publicly yet, so we can only speculate on what it may contain. I suspect it will mirror the browser client, but for now, the only thing that is certain is that it will support enterprise social.
Yammer UI integration with Groups
Teams is the new kid on the block. It is currently available in preview form, so this analysis may be incomplete. Microsoft Teams was built by the Skype product team, and given its ability to do 1:1 conversations, as well as textual, audio and video conversations, it should logically be seen as the successor to Skype for Business. What it brings to the table for Groups is a persistent semi-threaded chat interface. Although it only provides one of the workloads to Groups, it’s UI encompasses most of them.
The Teams client is quite rich, and it provides “sub-team” management. Every team gets at least one channel (General) and additional channels can be added at will. These channels are the containers for the semi-threaded discussions, and each channel also gets its own folder in the Groups OneDrive, as well as a section in the groups OneNote. Creating a channel provisions these artifacts automatically. Any one of these channels can be extended through tabs. Tabs are a way of including content that may be relevant to the channel, and that content can be dynamic. For example, a Power BI report can be added to a new tab and it will always be up to date, or through a third party, a Yammer Group conversation can be embedded as well. Finally, connectors can be employed to automatically add relevant content to a channel’s conversation interface as it occurs – a Twitter feed is a good example of this.
Teams channel showing the associated artifacts in OneDrive and OneNote
The fact that there is already a third-party tool for embedding Yammer conversations speaks to the extensibility of the Teams client as well. Extensibility options are available for tabs and connectors.
The integration of Teams with Planner is notable as well. As I previously wrote about here, the Teams client allows for multiple planner plans to be created within not only a single Group, but a single channel. These plans are NOT available through the Planner client UI, although the resulting tasks are. I would look for this to change in the near future, but that’s the way it works today.
The Teams client (both browser and desktop – they are virtually indistinguishable) has access to the widest set of Group workloads of any client currently. This is partly due to the fact that it is brand new, and as such, is the only client that has access to the Group chats. It has native access to Group management, file storage, group chat, notebook, plans and Power BI reports. It has links to the Group’s Team site, and through third party integration, it can embed enterprise social content. The only workloads that it does not currently integrate with are the Group inbox, and the Group calendar.
The mobile client is unfortunately vastly different. The only workloads that the mobile client works with today are Group chat (as expected) and Group files (from OneDrive. Given the importance of mobile to the modern team story, I would expect this to change. However, if the SharePoint mobile client had access to the Group chat, it could provide a viable alternative.
Microsoft Teams UI integration with Groups
There is very little integration between Planner and Groups. The Planner UI obviously offers native access to Group plans, but as mentioned in the Teams section, not all the plans – only the one associated twith the root Group itself. Each Plan also offers a link to access all of the files stored in the Group’s OneDrive, and that’s where the integration ends. There is no integration with the rest of the Group workspace. The Palnner browser client is also the only client available. Inexplicably, there is no mobile client for Planner.
Planner UI Integration with Groups
Power BI makes very good use of Groups – Groups provides the optimal sharing option for Power BI. Each Group is provided its own Power BI workspace, which is a container for data sources, reports, and dashboards. All members of the group get access to all the assets contained within.
The Power BI browser client is aimed primarily at the use of the Power BI service, but does provide some integration with the other Group workloads. Groups can be created and members added from the Power BI UI (although they are referred to as Group Workspaces). Native access is obviously provided to all the Power BI assets contained within, and links are also provided to the Outlook browser client for access to the Group inbox and the Group calendar. Finally, Group OneDrive files are natively available for the storage of data sources. There is no integration with the rest of the workloads currently.
The Power BI mobile client is all about Power BI – it doesn’t integrate with any of the other workloads, aside from being able to use the Group workspaces themselves.
To summarize, the modern Office 365 Group provides the membership and access services to 10 separate workloads which are provided across six different products/services. This “Group workspace” is accessed through any of 14 different clients that provide varying levels of access to the different workloads/and services. The choice of client will depend heavily on requirements and will likely lead to a combination of clients based on capability and preference. At the moment, the most integrated browser client is provided by Microsoft Teams, and the most integrated mobile client is SharePoint mobile. A final summary is below.