Last updated on January 17, 2017
Note – Since originally publishing this post, I have been made aware of some new management tools that will allow the ability to disable group creation by default. As opposed to modifying this post, which contains other observations, I have published a new one dealing with these new tools here.
As I’ve discussed before, Office 365 Groups are a very important feature in Office 365, and one that all organizations using Office 365 should fully understand as soon as possible. Groups are either required or they provide important capabilities for every product in the Office 365 stack. However, every organization has a different tolerance for change, and some have no tolerance for it at all. In addition, there are many aspects of Groups that are still a work in progress (navigation for example). A frequently asked question is “how do we turn off Groups?”. There’s nothing in the Office 365 Administration interface in either the Groups, or the Services & Add-ins sections.
Groups section in Services & Add-ins
I’m far from the first person to hear this question, and a quick Internet search will turn up many articles that walk through the process of “how to disable Groups creation”. There is an article on Technet that walks through the process, and Wictor Wilén has another that is quite straightforward (not to mention insightful). Finally, Albert-Jan Schot walks through the process of doing this for specific users or groups of users in the tenant.
What these approaches do is to adjust the Outlook Web Access policy that controls the creation of Office 365 Groups. At its core, an Office 365 Groups is just a type of Azure Active Directory Group, one with multiple services attached to it. When Groups were first introduced, the only way of creating them was through the Azure Active Directory interface, PowerShell and through Outlook Web Access (OWA). The first two methods require an administrative level of access, so enabling and disabling this feature in OWA effectively disabled it for end users. An end user can still see the Group creation controls, but any attempt to create a new group is met with a dialog informing them that this feature is disabled.
Since Groups were first introduced, there have been several significant changes as more Office 365 services embraced the Groups structure, and others have been introduced that rely on it.
When the “new” Power BI was introduced in mid 2015, its Sharing story relied heavily on Office 365 Groups. Each Group receives a Power BI workspace, and conversely each new Power BI workspace is a Group. Given that end users can create and to some extent manage the workspace directly in the Power BI user interface, it represents an alternate Groups management tool focused on the end user.
Creating a new Group in Power BI
Microsoft Planner, launched in mid-2016 is another product that relies on the availability of Groups. For the most part Planner stands on its own, with minimal ties to the rest of the Office 365 stack. Each Plan contains multiple tasks, but under the covers, each Plan is backed by an Office 365 Group, with all the rest of the available services. Creating a new plan in Planner creates a new Group, and everything that goes with it, even though the interface doesn’t make it very clear. You’re getting far more than just a plan.
Creating an Office 365 Groups (aka Plan) in Planner
With the release of Modern Team Sites in SharePoint, SharePoint is also very tightly bound to Office 365 Groups. Before this release, creating a new team site through the SharePoint interface or through the SharePoint administration interface created a classic SharePoint site collection. Doing so now also creates a group to go along with it (again, with everything that goes along with that) and all the access to the new Team Site (a site collection) is controlled through membership to that Group. The SharePoint interface for this makes it very clear as to what is happening – “Lets create a new team site and group”.
Creating an Office 365 Group from SharePoint
It is still possible to create a SharePoint site collection that is not bound to a group through the SharePoint administration interface. Modern team sites (the site collections created through the SharePoint user interface) don’t appear in the SharePoint administration interface at all.
The Outlook 2016 rich client also has a comprehensive set of group management features. A group can be created by right clicking on the “Groups” node in the Outlook mailbox, and once created can be fully managed by the “Home” tab in the ribbon.
Creating a new group in Outlook 2016
Managing a group in Outlook 2016
There are now 5 different way for end users to create and in some cases, manage their Office 365 groups. The original Outlook Web Access interface, and now Outlook 2016, Planner, SharePoint and Power BI. The processes outlined above for disabling group creation prevent group creation from Outlook Web Access, but what effect do they have on these new interfaces? The answer is, no effect whatsoever. Whether the “GroupCreationEnabled” OWA policy has been set to false or not, these other interfaces will still be able to create and work with Office 365 Groups. This may not be surprising as Power BI, Planner, and now even features of SharePoint are dependent on the Groups infrastructure.
I have not called out Microsoft Teams above. It is true that Teams is also dependent on the Groups infrastructure, and that creating a new team will create a new group. Where Teams differs from the other dependent services is that the creation of a new Group in one of the other interfaces does not automatically create a new Team. In addition, Teams itself must be enabled by an administrator, meaning that for this additional service, Groups creation can be controlled centrally.
In the very near future, Yammer will also become Groups dependent. Creation of a new group in Yammer will spin up a corresponding Office 365 group, which will be used to store the files and notes available in Yammer. These groups will be flagged as “Yammer managed” meaning that they will not appear in the Outlook interfaces, but they will be available to all the other services that utilize groups.
The bottom line of all this is that even if you use Office 365, and you think that you have disabled Groups in your tenant, the chances are that you could be in for a surprise. If any of these dependent services are in use, the chances are that you already have several created.
Groups are the bedrock of all new features in Office 365 moving forward – it is therefore a good idea that your organization understand them as soon as possible. Their inevitability is also another strong argument for paying close attention to them. If you are currently discussing whether or not they should be used, I would strongly encourage you to shifting that discussion to how they should best be used.