For most of the last 25 years or so, most people with “office” jobs have relied on email as their primary communications tool at work. During that time, Microsoft has added many ways for groups of people to collaborate within their email clients: distribution lists, public folders, shared mailboxes, resource mailboxes, site mailboxes, and Groups. How does an organization decide which of these options to use? When are shared mailboxes the best choice?
In a recent post to the Exchange Server MVP email list, Microsoft asked an interesting question to the MVP community about how customers are using the collaboration tools within Exchange. I thought that today, I would extend that conversation to this blog. I will try to summarize the opinions of the MVP community and Microsoft as to which feature is best used in each situation, but more importantly, I’ll try to give you some information that you can use to help your organization make the best decisions possible.
I do want to start off by saying that I am not going to try to provide answers to which collaboration tool is best for which situation. In my experience, that is a lost cause. Most of the time, people try to avoid change. If you march into an office building full of people who are used to doing things one way, and you start telling them they should be doing things differently, you’re going to have a bad day. My goal with this blog post is to give you, the IT administrator, the information you need to help choose the best collaboration tools when it is appropriate to make a change.
The topic that started the thread on the MVP list was about shared mailboxes. Microsoft gets a fair number of support calls from Office 365 customers with shared mailbox issues. The problem is not that shared mailboxes are broken, but that users and administrators are not getting the functionality they want, and they are opening cases to try to resolve the issue.
Shared mailboxes provide users with capabilities such as easy provision and maintainance. Additionally, within Office 365, shared mailboxes are free and therefore are often used as collaboration tools without much consideration going into deciding whether they are even the best fit for the situation.
Three situations Microsoft mentioned in which share mailboxes are commonly utilized, but may not be the best solution to their situation are:
For a “Send As” and “Team” receive identity (i.e. support@, or sales@ email addresses)
For a shared calendar
For shared contacts
In the first situation where an organization is using a shared mailbox for a team identity, one of the pitfalls to that use case is that the “Send As” experience is difficult to configure and use, and there is not a good way to use that identity from any mobile clients.
In my opinion, using Office 365 Groups is a better choice for this shared identity mailbox use case. Of course, that solution is limited to Office 365 customers considering Office 365 Groups are not available to customers using on-premises Exchange.
For organizations that are Office 365 customers, the shared identity mailbox is one example of an excellent use case for an Office 365 Group. The “Send As” experience is not much better, but Groups is still a much better feature for this use case.
The use case of shared calendars is also one where I think Office 365 Groups is a much better solution than shared mailboxes. We still have the on-premises problem, for which I don’t have a great solution. I do find it frustrating that Microsoft’s solution is always going to start with “move to the cloud," but that happens to be the world we live in.
Office 365 Groups has a good mobile app and OWA integration, so all the features of that solution are available on any platform. As far as I’m concerned, that makes Office 365 Groups the ideal choice for the first two (aforementioned) situations Microsoft mentioned as common problem areas for customers using shared mailboxes.
However, the third situation is not one where Groups could offer a lot of help. I guess an Excel spreadsheet stored in an Office 365 Group would give excellent mobile access to that information, but if you want real contacts, there is no support within Groups at all.
In my opinion, there are two options for this use case of sharing contacts: either public folders or an address list. That said, neither public folders nor address lists are very good solutions for managing shared contacts. Address lists require administrative access to manage, which I think should disqualify them as an option for most organizations. Public folders do give you the ability to delegate control to users without administrative access, but the public folder management process is not something that most users are going to understand. Of course, there is no mobile experience for public folders outside of OWA, and address lists can be accessed from all messaging clients very easily.
Nathan O'Bryan MCSM
Nathan is a five time former Microsoft MVP and he specializes in Exchange, Microsoft 365, Active Directory, and cloud identity and security.