You Can’t Disable Office 365 Groups

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 Administration

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.

Understanding Office 365 Groups

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.

SharePoint

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

Outlook

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

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

Microsoft Teams

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

Planner

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

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.

Summary

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.

Completing the Microsoft Reporting Roadmap

In the recent announcement outlining the SharePoint integration strategy on the SQL Server Reporting Services Team’s blog, there was a statement that was almost hidden that I think deserves more attention. The statement was:

“….in time, we aim to support web-based viewing of Excel workbooks in Native mode…”

This may not sound like a big deal – after all, we’ve been able to serve up Excel workbooks in a browser since Excel Services was initially introduced with SharePoint 2007. However, as per Microsoft’s Reporting Roadmap from October 2015, Reporting Services is their on-premises solution for BI report delivery. If an Excel workbook is to be considered a report, the SSRS absolutely should be able to do it. The roadmap defined four types of reports:

  • Paginated
  • Interactive
  • Analytical
  • Mobile

I tend to see there being two types of reports, Structured and Analytical. In the list above, Structured corresponds with Paginated, and the other 3 types are different subtypes of Analytical. They four categories do, however line up well with the different reporting technologies available.

Report Type File Type
Paginated RDL (Classic SSRS)
Interactive PBIX (Power BI)
Analytical XLSX (Excel)
Mobile RSMOBILE (SSRS Mobile aka Datazen)

The roadmap was primarily concerned with the future of SSRS, but SSRS is Microsoft’s stated report delivery platform for on-premises reporting. The platform for cloud reporting is of course Power BI. There is a third platform for the delivery of “Analytical”, or Excel based reports, and that’s Excel Online. On premises, it’s called Office Online Server, but it is the same technology. The three platforms and their capabilities are shown below.

SSRS

Excel Online/OOS

Power BI

Paginated

Yes

N/A

No

Interactive

Preview

N/A

Yes

Analytical

Announced

Yes

Yes

Mobile

yes

N/A

Yes

The technical preview of Power BI reports in Reporting Services is available for testing, which covers Interactive reports in SSRS, and the above statement indicates that there is a solution to support Analytic reports in SSRS as well. The Power BI platform does this already, and it is done by leveraging the capabilities of Excel Online. Given the fact that Office Online server provides the same capabilities on premises, it makes sense that it would be used by SSRS when the Excel workbook support is added.

It should also be noted that the above comparison shows Mobile reports being supported by Power BI. To be clear, Power BI does not support RSMOBILE files, but regular Power BI reports are inherently mobile and available through the Power BI mobile client. which is also how RSMOBILE reports are delivered to end users.

The Reporting Services team is clearly very close to completing the vision laid out over a year ago, in the Reporting Roadmap for on-premises users. If the goal is to have parity between on-premises and cloud platforms, the only thing remaining (apart from possible support of the RSMOBILE format) is support for Paginated reports in Power BI. There have been no statements made regarding this capability, but its absence is certainly notable.

The Future of Report Integration with SharePoint

Yesterday, Microsoft made official what many, including myself had been suspecting ever since the release of SQL Server 2016 – that SQL Server Reporting Services Integrated mode would not exist in the future. With the announcement, we now know the timeline of when that will happen. SSRS Integrated Mode will not be included with the next version of SQL Server. Instead, SSRS Native mode will be more tightly integrated with SharePoint for those organizations that use both products. As someone that has always approached Business Intelligence from the SharePoint point of view, I see this is a good thing.

This change is another step in the process of de-cluttering and uncomplicating SharePoint. This process started arguably with the move away from fully trusted code running on SharePoint, to the newer app, add-in and now SPFx development models that run with SharePoint. When Excel Services was removed from SharePoint in SharePoint 2016, with its capabilities moved to Office Online Server this process became obvious. A decreased dependency on SharePoint allows for simpler, more streamlined architectures, better options for upgrade management, and better, more targeted performance management.

SSRS SharePoint Integrated mode has been with us in various forms since it was first introduced in SQL Server 2005 SP2. The original goal was to simplify the integration of the two products, and to take advantage of SharePoint’s storage and authorization capabilities. The integration has always worked well, but the very fact that these two products were delivered by two different product teams on different media, often on different release schedules has typically led to a great deal of confusion. The SharePoint prerequisite for Integrated Mode leads to far too many SQL servers having SharePoint installed on them.

Managing SSRS in SharePoint Integrated mode requires a combined skill set to some degree as well, with knowledge of both SSRS and SharePoint. SharePoint administrators tend to be intimidated by SSRS, and SharePoint simply mystifies SQL DBAs.

The fact that the two different modes did not always maintain feature parity is another problem. PowerView and several other features are only available through SharePoint integrated mode. This results in entire SharePoint farms being created for the sole purpose of providing reporting features. Since those performing these installations are typically not familiar with SharePoint best practices, these farms tend to be unreliable. The latest release of SSRS 2016 contains a massive number of new features, but many of them in Native mode only, leaving the SharePoint integrated folks with a decision whether to favour features or integration.

A strategy that reduces the dependency of one platform on the other is therefore to everyone’s advantage.

The two operating modes also represent two different code streams for Microsoft to maintain. Given the finite set of resources that is any development team, resources must be spent on maintaining both of these streams that could otherwise be applied to features. A single code stream is simply more efficient.

Preventing the wholesale move to Native mode are several SharePoint integration features that have been employed over the years that are only available in SharePoint Integrated mode.

There has been a SharePoint Report viewer web part for SSRS Native mode since SharePoint 2003. The trouble is that while it does work, it is deprecated, and hasn’t been updated since SQL Server 2008 R2. It also doesn’t allow for parameter binding, or interface control. For all intents and purposes, it is an iFrame embed of a report. The web part that is available through integrated mode allows for parameter interactivity, and significant control of the look and feel. It has been widely deployed. Integrated mode also allows for the reporting of SharePoint list data, and the ability to publish reports to a SharePoint library on a schedule. These features are well utilized in the market today.

Power View reports (RDLX) built on top of SSAS tabular models, or Excel Power Pivot models also require Integrated mode. Compounding this is the fact that Power View requires Silverlight, which does not work in either the Chrome nor the Microsoft Edge browsers.

These integration features will need to be added to Native mode before it will be possible to fully abandon Integrated mode. The good news is that the announcement commits to doing just that. Report embed, Report viewer web part, and SharePoint library destination capabilities will all be added. For Power View reports, a conversion tool will be provided to convert from RDLX into Power BI Desktop (PBIX). A technical preview is already availably that demonstrated PBIX rendering in SSRS.

This announcement signals the end of SSRS SharePoint Integrated mode, but it does not spell the end of SSRS SharePoint integration. The single mode architecture should be more approachable, simpler, and more efficient. It’s a win all the way around.

With Microsoft Teams, Office 365 Groups Can Now Have Multiple Planner Plans

Microsoft Planner went into general availability in June of 2016. It allows basic project and task management for organizational teams. Like most products in the Office 365 suite, Planner makes extensive use of Office 365 Groups, which provides membership services through Azure Active Directory, and Storage through SharePoint. Creating a new Plan in Planner is one of the ways to create and Office 365 Group – each plan gets a Group. Conversely, each Group gets a Plan.

Adding Members to a Plan – Adding to the Office 365 Group

One of the more requested features on the Planner User Voice site is to break this 1:1 relationship so that a Group could contain multiple Plans. It’s currently marked as “Thinking About It” in user voice, but it appears that far more work has gone into it than that.

Microsoft Teams was released into preview earlier this month, and included in Teams is very tight integration with Planner. Teams is also tightly coupled with Groups (each Team gets Group), and adding the Group’s Plan to the interface is relatively straightforward. Simply click on the “add tab” icon, and choose Planner.

And then give the plan a name and save it.

However, there’s more to it than that. From the Teams interface, it’s possible to create additional Plans. To do so, simple add another tab and repeat the process.

How is this possible? If there is a 1:1 correspondence between Groups and Teams, and a 1:1 correspondence between Groups and Plans, then there must also be the same correspondence between Plans and Teams. As it turns out, that the relationship between Groups and Plans is no longer limited to 1:1. The plans created in Teams are not (or do not appear to be) a part of the group. This can be seen if you open Planner on its own, and these plans will not appear in the “All plans” list, because this is just a list of Groups. The Group itself has a Plan associated with it, but it’s not any of the plans that are created in Teams. However, if you have tasks from these Plans assigned to you, they will appear in the My tasks list.

Conversely, in the Teams interface, I cannot find a way to have this default plan appear in the Teams interface. This is something that could be very confusing for any users that use bot the Planner ands the Teams interfaces. Given that Teams is only in preview now, I can only assume that these user interface inconsistencies will be remedied.

The bottom line to all of this is that it appears that the bulk of the work has been done to allow multiple plans in a single Office 365 Group. You simply need to use Microsoft Teams in order to access them.