Microsoft Teams and the New Microsoft Social Landscape

Today, Microsoft debuted Microsoft Teams. Microsoft Teams allows teams of people to quickly get together to collaborate in real time. If you’re keeping count, this represents Microsoft third tool in the Social Computing space.

Why would Microsoft want to introduce yet another social computing tool? They already have Yammer, Skype (for business and personal), and Outlook Group conversations. What would be the reasoning for this new product? At one level, Microsoft Teams is aimed at the same group of users that find value in Slack, which is a social tool that has grown in popularity recently and is particularly popular with developers.

I was first exposed to Slack a little over a year ago. I had heard about it, and the buzz around it was that it was the “next big thing”, so my expectations were high. When I did first use it, my thoughts were, “That’s it? That’s all there is to it?”. Functionally, Slack doesn’t really bring anything to the table that we didn’t have 30 years ago with IRC chat. Now, given the demographic that Slack is popular with, they are likely not old enough to remember IRC. Of course, none of this really matters, what matters is that Slack fills a need for immediate, almost synchronous communication with very little structure. Slack doesn’t even support threaded discussions. However, it’s simplicity is its strength and its value proposition, and Microsoft hasn’t had anything in the market quite like it. Until now.

So how does this product compare with its existing Social tools, Yammer and Outlook Groups? When would you use one vs the other?

Microsoft bought Yammer in 2012 and quickly championed it as the cornerstone of its social computing strategy moving forward, replacing the social features of SharePoint Online, and making them optional in SharePoint on-premises. However, at Ignite 2015, Microsoft introduced Groups for Office 365, which included a conversation platform based on Exchange (Outlook conversations). This was essentially a group inbox with a number of social features added such as likes, etc. It was pretty clear that Groups were going to be the underpinning of the next generation of features in Office 365, and this led to quite a bit of uncertainty about Microsoft’s social strategy. The recent Ignite 2016 made it pretty clear that Microsoft is doubling down on Yammer as its social strategy, but that does little to clear up the confusion. What happens now with Outlook conversations? Microsoft Teams would seem to only make it worse.

The reality, in my opinion, is that these tools are not exclusive. Although there are some areas of overlap, I see them at complementary, with each serving a niche depending on requirements, or at the same time. The problem is that they tend to be positioned as competitors. In my opinion, we have an “or” vs an “exclusive or” situation.

I have used Yammer, Outlook Groups and Slack (used here for comparison purposes) of these platforms fairly heavily in the past year. At UnlimitedViz, we have moved most of our collaboration and document management away from Team sites and into Groups. On a side note, we’re very happy to see Team sites now following us over. Yammer is the platform that we primarily used for our threaded discussions. Slack is used by the MVP community for quick and easy chats. I like all three and dislike all three for different reasons.

Once we moved most of our customer focused content into Groups, the value of having an inbox for each group became readily apparent. When going through email, I could simply forward important ones to the group, where it would be retained, and accessible to other members of that group. I could now delete customer email with impunity. From a feature standpoint, this is gold. We also decided to run one of our more significant projects using Outlook conversations alone, and that aspect wound up being a very poor experience. The email infrastructure simply wasn’t built for threaded conversations.

Yammer can infuriate me from time to time, particularly with its unread mark handling (which has admittedly gotten better) and its poor to non-existent search capabilities. Content stored in Yammer is effectively gone as far as I’m concerned, which makes it particularly difficult to have conversations around context. Keeping the content in Office 365 Groups requires a lot of URL copying and pasting if you want to socialize or discuss it in Yammer. A “group” in Yammer is not the same thing as a Group in Office 365. With all of that said, Yammer delivers a superior threaded discussion experience. Its similarity to Facebook makes adoption relatively easy, and its threading keeps relevant content at the top.

Slack is the simplest of the bunch, which makes it the easiest to get up and running. It is almost totally unstructured, meaning that while anything goes, it’s not too long before it disappears. Messages are kept, but I grow weary of scrolling back through the pile of previous messages to find something that I think that I saw. Slack lives in the “now”, and the more current the content is, the more appropriate Slack is. However, it doesn’t take long for a Slack channel to become noisy, with several conversations going on at the same time. It’s like having ADD while being at a noisy cocktail party.

None of these tools on their own deliver everything necessary for a complete social experience, although they are suitable on their own for their own niche. I think that my biggest pet peeve about using these different tools is that I need to jump from interface to interface to complete the experience. This, I believe is where Groups comes in.

Office 365 Groups is (I so badly want to use “are” here… but Groups is the name) designed to be an integrating construct. Groups really has no interface of its own, but when it was originally released, it backed the interfaces of Outlook, OneDrive, and OneNote. Outlook Groups is the Exchange based conversation interface. Shortly afterward, Office 365 Groups became an integral part of Power BI and Planner as well. Integration of Modern SharePoint Team Sites with Office 365 Groups provides a logical entry point for the Group, as SharePoint can integrate disparate UI elements. At Ignite 2016, both Yammer and Power BI content was shown in pages in a Modern Team Site through web parts. It’s not hard to see how these things can coexist in the same container.

Yammer embedded in a Modern Team Site

Power BI embedded in a Modern Team Site

The introduction of Microsoft Teams would seem to muddy the water a little. The important thing is to understand which tool to use under which circumstance. This is a much-discussed topic, and there are hours of presentation material available that discuss it. The decision is a combination of personal preference and applicability to the task at hand, but far too often it becomes a matter of familiarity. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I wince every time that I’m asked to build click throughs into an SSRS report, or to design a Power BI report to optimize printing – these are two different tools that are good at doing different things. Often, if it can be done with the tool that you know, often time we don’t look elsewhere, even when that other tool is better at that task. Further to this, the “difference” can often be a matter of perception, and in the case of an online service like Office 365, of branding.

These components can be used within team sites as appropriate wherever suitable. With the team site providing the “glue”, it will be possible to surface content from any or all of these tools as appropriate. All the products already require, or use an Office 365 license already, so that is not a consideration. The question is where would you use one versus the other?

As mentioned above, Outlook Groups makes for an excellent Group inbox, but is not great as a conversation platform. This Group inbox also provides the destination for content brought in from Office 365 Connectors. It’s a logical and effective landing spot for content that is sent to the group. If the group needs an inbox, this is it – straightforward. Less straightforward is the difference between Microsoft Teams and Yammer.

I’ve been using Slack thus far as an example of group chat simply because it’s what I have experience with. Microsoft Teams is new, and while it compares favourably with Slack, it also includes threaded discussions. Threaded discussions are something that Slack does not have, but Yammer does, and this makes the decision between the two a little less clear than between Yammer and Slack. IN fact, looking at the UI, it’s a little difficult to spot the difference.

Microsoft Teams threaded conversation interface

Even with threaded discussions, Microsoft Teams has more in common with Slack than it does with Yammer. Microsoft Teams is highly appropriate for small groups that get created, have a relatively short or defined life, and are then retired. Yammer groups are more structural – they are typically managed by someone to help foster participation. Microsoft Teams follow a bottom up approach, where Yammer is more top down. Small groups will participate in a single Team, but too many users will likely make it too noisy to be useful. Conversely Yammer groups can reach the entire enterprise, and like most networks, their value increases with the number of nodes. Microsoft Teams are focused of chat, and Yammer is focused on conversations. If you need to get a quick group of collaborators together around a specific goal, Microsoft Teams is likely the right tool, but if you’re trying to build a community, Yammer is likely a better choice. There are of course other technical factors that may dictate one versus the other, but these factors are subject to change.

This leads me to my suggestion. We can see that the technology is emerging that will allow us to work with these tools simultaneously, as appropriate. Office 365 Groups along with Modern SharePoint Team Sites will become the containers for this convergence. However, if these products maintain their own identity, there will continue to be confusion around which one Microsoft is “betting on” or which one is “the best”. I believe that a rebranding exercise is in order.

  • Outlook Conversations becomes Group Inbox
  • Yammer becomes Group Conversations
  • Microsoft Teams becomes Group Chat

While this branding may not become a reality, I think that it’s helpful to think of the 3 tools in this manner.

6 thoughts on “Microsoft Teams and the New Microsoft Social Landscape

  1. Sam Marshall

    Really helpful post and I appreciate your insights from first hand experience, thank you.

    You conclude buy making a distinction between a conversation and a chat though. Could you spell out what you see was the difference?

    PS. I thought IRC was only about 20 years ago. I feel old now!

  2. Roberto

    Thank you for this post. I think every now and then you will have to make more considerations on this matter.

    BTW I think another feature that differentiate teams from groups and yammers is that if you add a new member to a team, he won’t be able to read previous chats. While in groups and yammer he will.
    But I have the feeling that ms will change this, if teams become popular.

  3. Bert Vries

    Dear John,

    The fact that you needed 1781 words to explain the relationship between Yammer, Teams and Outlook Groups strengthens my firm belief that normal customers really get lost when they are trying to make sense of the tsunami of social tools of microsoft. The phrase ‘Less is More’ is not widely known within microsoft.

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