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
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.
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.
Ever since 2007, SharePoint has included Business Intelligence amongst its core workloads. There have been a variety of approaches to the workload over the years, but today those core workloads include Excel Services/Excel Online, PerformancePoint, SQL Server Reporting Services Integrated Mode, and Power Pivot for SharePoint.
Power Pivot for SharePoint and Excel Services go hand in hand and can really be considered as one of the main pillars, leaving us with three. If we quickly examine these three pillars in SharePoint 2016, it’s pretty easy to spot an emerging trend. Excel Services is gone from SharePoint 2016, its capabilities being added to Excel Online. Excel Online connects to, but does not run on SharePoint. PerformancePoint still exists in 2016, but it has received precisely 0 new features – it is identical to the version in SharePoint 2013, and remains a part of product for legacy reasons. For all intents and purposes, I consider PerformancePoint to be deprecated. SSRS Integrated mode has been greatly improved in 2016, but contains nowhere near the improvements that the Native Mode version of SSRS has in 2016.
At the same time, the past year has witnessed the spectacular rise of Power BI. Power BI is clearly the focus area for Business Intelligence within Microsoft for cloud based BI delivery. Last fall the SQL team announced that on-premises customers were not being ignored, and that SSRS was the platform for on premises BI delivery They also sketched out a roadmap that showed both platforms being able to deliver the same type of reports. In June 2016, the team delivered on a portion of this vision with SQL Server 2016 Reporting Service.
So where does this leave SharePoint in the Business Intelligence ecosystem?
In my opinion, it leaves it right where it should be – as an integrating platform, and NOT as a runtime platform as it has been in the past. SharePoint provides in context BI by connecting content to reports, and providing dashboards connected to multiple sources. In 2016, SharePoint connects to Excel Online to deliver Analytical reports. Excel runs with SharePoint now, not on it. SSRS Integrated mode still runs on SharePoint, but the investments in Native mode are a clear indication to me that this will be the direction here as well. Unfortunately, Sharepoint has been lacking tight integration with Power BI.
The recent Ignite 2016 conference was the first public appearance of the Power BI web part.
Figure 1: Insert web part dialog with Power BI web part
The Power BI web part works with Modern Sharepoint pages and is based on the new SharePoint Framework (SPFx), which means that it is completely client-side. Why does this matter to us? The fact that it is completely client side means that it will work both in SharePoint Online and on premises. Initially, it will only work with SharePoint Online, but that is because the SharePoint Framework is currently unavailable on premises.
To use the new web part, first create or edit a Modern SharePoint page. The Modern pages support the new Modern web parts. Click on a “+” icon to open the insert part control (Figure 1). Once inserted, add the report URL, and the page. The report page should immediately render within the context of the SharePoint page.
Figure 2: Power BI Report page rendered within a SharePoint page
Since the web part is rendering client side, the consuming user obviously needs to have access to the report. This means that the source report must have been shared with them through Power BI dashboard sharing, or the report is in a group within which the consuming user is a member. This latter case makes the most sense given that all Office 365 Groups will have a corresponding Modern Team site. Embedding the report within group pages should “just work”.
The devil is of course in the details, and all of these details are not yet available, but Given the number of questions that I have received over the past year about Sharepoint/Power BI integration, I expect that its existence will come as welcome news. Over time I would expect to see it picking up support for parameters and the ability to work with individual report items (this is speculation, but it makes sense). It’s also not much of a stretch to see how SSRS could make available a Modern web part that worked in the same fashion with on premises SSRSs. That web part could conceivably work both on premises an Online, bringing SSRS to SharePoint Online for the first time.
SharePoint is still very much a platform for integration and for Business Intelligence content delivery. SSRS and Power BI will be the de facto reporting engines for on-premises and the cloud respectively, and Sharepoint will be the dashboarding/integrating platform for both environments.
“The reports of Yammer’s death are greatly exaggerated”
Shortly after Microsoft purchased Yammer in the summer of 2012, it was all that the Office division could talk about. Yammer was to replace the conversation feed in SharePoint, the entire development team would adopt the quick shipping Yammer style, and we SharePoint MVPs were told that we were all Yammer MVPs. The conversation feed did in fact replace SharePoint’s in Office 365, and hooks were added to allow it to work with on-premises SharePoint. The SharePoint team moved to a quick shipping cloud first approach, but some time around 2014, the name Yammer was used less and less. At the 2015 Microsoft Ignite conference Yammer had a presence, but it was very muted compared to previous events. At the same time, a new conversations technology appeared in Office 365 Groups that was based on Exchange.
This trend led to a great deal of speculation that Yammer was on the wane. When Microsoft goes silent on a product, it normally means the end of it (Active X, Silverlight, SharePoint Designer, Silverlight). There are notable exceptions to this (SSRS), but it’s normally the case. However, at the same time they continued to make significant investments in it, and most of these investments were architectural (move data centres, Integration with Azure Active Directory). This has sent a very mixed message to the market – why would they continue to invest (heavily) in a dead product? It was almost as if they weren’t sure what to do with it, and were hedging their bets.
The Ignite 2016 conference has removed the mixed part of this messaging. Yammer is quite clearly the social strategy for Microsoft in Office 365. One needs only to look at the attention that Yammer received at the conference. At Ignite 2015, on the show floor, Yammer had a small pedestal with a single screen. It’s significantly larger at Ignite 2016.
There were a number of freebies being handed out. I haven’t seen a new Yammer T-shirt in years, and they were being handed out by the dozens. That itself is telling, but I found the iconography to be particularly interesting.
MVP Amy Dolzine
The renewed investment extended to the social events as well. The Yammer team hosted an event .
These investments are a clear sign, but what really matters is the product itself, and this is where the rubber hits the road. Yammer is becoming more and more tightly integrated with the Office 365 suite all of the time. A lot of architectural work has been done to facilitate this. In fact, next year, Microsoft will be dropping the standalone version of Yammer, and the Enterprise license along with it, making it first class component of Office 365. One look no further that the embedded Yammer conversation views:
In context Yammer conversations embedded in a SharePoint Publishing page
The above shows threaded discussions happening within the context of the content, in this case, a SharePoint publishing page. This is accomplished through the use of the new Yammer web part, which is built with the new SharePoint Framework, and delivered in Modern SharePoint pages. This feature is not available yet, but is coming very soon. The above image is not a mock -up. In fact, if you look at a list of modern web parts in a test environment today, there are only a couple that represent integration points – two of them stand out – Power BI, and Yammer.
Yammer is now an integral part of Office 365 Groups – another topic that was well represented at Ignite. I could attempt to articulate how this works, and why it matters, but this has already been done by Naomi Moneypenny here. There is also a Microsoft blog post discussing it available here. In a nutshell, Yammer will leverage all of the other Groups capabilities including SharePoint for document storage and OneNote for Notes capture, replacing its own native storage systems. Office 365 Groups will use Yammer for threaded discussions.
The approach to Yammer is different than the one we’ve become accustomed to. Yammer is to become an integral part of Office 365 Groups, providing the social component to the excellent content experience of Groups. Yammer becomes a part of a greater whole which, in my opinion is all to the good. Yammer has often been presented and used as a standalone solution. I’ve often felt that the threaded conversations in Yammer work well, but trying to use it for content management or event management is frustrating at best. Integration points between it and Office 365 have been poor to non-existent. The Yammer Add-in for SharePoint was recently removed from the store. Yammer groups have been different than Office 365 Groups leading to a disjointed experience. This is true no longer – now there are only Groups. The same group backing a SharePoint Team site backs Yammer’s social content. Yammer will also share OneDrive, OneNote and calendars, unifying all of the non-social content.
Yammer doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
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.