SharePoint is back. With a vengeance.
For the past few years, SharePoint has been relegated to a supporting role within Office 365. It even lost its identity a few years back, with the name “SharePoint” being replaced by the bland “Sites”. This has been exacerbated recently by the rise of Groups (referred to either as Outlook Groups or Office 365 Groups). If Groups are the way forward, what value can SharePoint provide?
A lot, as it turns out.
Office 365 Groups
I refer to them as Office 365 Groups, because they incorporate elements from multiple Office 365 products. However, they are also referred to as Outlook Groups, which is the name of the mobile app. The interesting thing is that if you scratch the surface of the Groups user interface in either OneDrive or OneNote, you can see pretty quickly that it’s really a SharePoint site, or more specifically a site collection. Just look at the URL.
In SharePoint, a Group is a specific type of site collection with a single document library for files (the OneDrive), and a library for other supporting files (including the Group OneNote). The difference is that a Group is what it is – it can’t be extended or modified to any significant degree. You can’t even access the All Content or site settings by adding “/_layouts/15/viewlsts.aspx” to the site URL (if you try, you get redirected to the main OneDrive view of the Group). SharePoint is really just there as the container. This can be frustrating, because as anyone that has worked with SharePoint knows, it can be much, much more.
The introduction of Groups initially caused confusion, particularly for users of SharePoint team sites, or Yammer. Was OneDrive replacing SharePoint (which is kind of silly… OneDrive IS SharePoint)? Did the new Exchange based conversations mean that Yammer was dead? Those questions have been hanging out there unanswered for quite some time.
Once I understood them, I came to really like Office 365 Groups. They bring together multiple tools into a single coherent location with a clear security boundary, and they are relatively simple to manage. One of the criticisms of Groups has been that there is no single central UI. Groups are manifested in Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, OneNote and Power BI, but there’s really no central starting point for a group. It’s like a city of suburbs in search of a downtown.
There have been more than a few detractors of Groups as well. Most of them relate to their immaturity. The Outlook conversations provide excellent email integration (obviously) but were not as full featured as Yammer in other ways. There have been several others, but the biggest complaint seems to me to be the fact that a SharePoint team site provides much more functionality than a simple OneDrive library. These factors have been a significant blocker for the adoption of Office 365 Groups.
That all changed with the Future of SharePoint event on May 4, 2016.
The New Team Sites
Team sites have been the traditional place for groups of people to work in the world of SharePoint. These sites would be decorated with web parts, both in and out of the box in order to augment their capabilities, and to provide a window into other team based content structures such as calendars, custom lists, reports, etc. Team sites have always seemed like the logical starting place for group data, and now they are.
Beginning in mid 2016, whenever a new group is created, a new team site will be created as well. Conversely, a new team site will create an Office 365 Group, with all of its components (OneDrive, OneNote, Mail address, Planner, Power BI Workspace). To be totally clear, this new style of team site is a SharePoint site collection, and not a subsite (or web), which means that its security details are bound to that of the group.
Yammer users may wonder what this means for the previously announced integration with both Groups and Azure Active Directory. Nothing was announced at the event, so this is pure speculation on my part, but I would have to assume that if there is to be a 1:1 correspondence between Office 365 Groups, and Yammer groups, that Yammer will be a part of this as well. Given SharePoint’s strengths, I can only assume that this will be the place that all non conversational Yammer content is stored (files, calendars, etc.
The new team site will intrinsically integrate many of the things that formerly needed to be added on later, and the new Office 365 connectors mean that many other content sources can be added with a minimum of effort.
While both SharePoint and Yammer have had external sharing for several years now, and Yammer now has external groups (with a lowercase g…), Office 365 groups have been restricted to members of the tenant’s Azure Active Directory. Therefore, if we now have a 1:1 correspondence between Groups and team sites, and we are also able to use Yammer as the conversations provider, Office 365 groups need to accommodate external users.
The good news is that soon, they will. Thanks to Wictor Wilen’s sharp eye, we can see in the Office 365 admin center that as of this writing, the infrastructure to support external access to groups has already rolled out. Coincidentally (or not), Yammer support of external groups also rolled out in the same timeframe.
The new SharePoint team sites, and their integration with Groups will give Office 365 that entry point that so many have been missing. It is exceedingly easy, and fast to get up and running with a usable site that is automatically integrated across the platform. When you create a Group, you not only have the AAD group, but a team site, a calendar, a distribution list, a conversation platform, a Planner Plan and a Power BI workspace. At the same time, it brings SharePoint back out of the shadows, and back in to the limelight.
SharePoint is back at the center of Office 365, and it’s better than ever.