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The Collaboration Landscape in Office 365

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Gary Cooper
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More than likely, you are an email admin, with deep experience in Exchange. Maybe you have recently migrated to Exchange Online, and are thinking “Hey, I know how to collaborate in Exchange, so what’s the big fuss about.” Let review where we have been and where Office 365 is headed.

Distribution Lists

We have all had Distribution Lists, more recently known as Distribution Groups, or DL’s. These have been around for a long time. I can remember creating these back in Exchange 4.0 and 5.0 as replacements for Mailing Lists. They are great for providing a single address to send email to a group of mailboxes, which can be as small or as large as you can imagine. If we needed to have very large DL’s, we would nest multiple DL’s inside of a core DL (e.g. – All Employees DL). But it we step back for a minute, we can easily see that these DL’s didn’t really provide collaboration, but just a means to more easily send emails to others. DL’s do have a place still, but surely, we can do than this for real collaboration. So, let’s look at what we really mean by collaboration. 

Collaboration Defined

Let’s start by grounding our discussion in a little definition. 

  • Collaboration: a collaboration is a purposeful relationship in which all parties strategically choose to cooperate in order to achieve shared or overlapping objectives
  • Collaboration Tool: a collaboration tool helps people to collaborate. The purpose of a collaboration tool is to support a group of two or more individuals to accomplish a common goal or objective they have set themselves.

Collaboration Tool Requirements

Before we can determine what collaboration tool(s) are best, we need to define some of the typical requirements of modern collaboration tools.

  • Communication Features
    • Real Time Messaging – Lets face it, sending email can just take too long. Users are used to instant message delivery. 
    • Email – Sometimes, the more permanence of an email message is preferred.
    • Group Messaging – Not only is delivery to a group of people important, but so is the ability to know that others have read the messages.
    • Discussion Channels – What if users want to have conversations grouped by topic? For example: separate work teams within a project. 
  • User Experience
    • Themes – Everyone wants to have a customized experience these days, not just the same look and feel.
    • Multi-Lingual – Many of us also support users in multiple countries and regions, so multiple language support is important.
    • Emoji, Gifs, Stickers – When we think of today’s users, they love to ham it up with emojis, gifs, stickers, and memes. Maybe we should think about this in the collaboration tool so they can express the emotions behind the message.
    • Dedicated Client vs. Browser – This one is huge. What client style do your users prefer? Some like the simplicity of the browser, while other really want a task built and dedicated client.
  • Document Management
    • Application-Driven Tabs – Users typically want options on how they manage data, and tabs seem to be the “in thing."
    • Uploading of Files – Instead of sending files with attachments, it is better to have a central document repository that can be accessed by all users and that they can work on together.
    • Folders and File Management – It’s not enough to just provide a dumping ground for files, users must be able to organize, share, rename, delete, and manage the data.
  • Productivity
    • Search – If we place a lot of data in one place, users should be able to easily find what they are looking for. Searching for documents, conversations, ideas, and thoughts must be intuitive and complete.
    • Project or Task Management – Since collaboration tools will be used heavily for projects, task management is key
    • Offline notifications – What if some of the users have been offline and have missed key parts of the conversation?
    • User Presence – More importantly, it will be helpful to know if someone you need to talk with is online.

Collaboration Better Than DL’s

So, we can now see why DL’s aren’t really cutting it for collaboration.  Let’s look at what else we have to choose from:

  • Office 365 Groups: This is Microsoft’s direct replacement for DL’s in Outlook, but with the addition of OneDrive and OneNote features!
  • Office 365 Teams: Truly a collaboration tool including features from Office 365 Groups, plus threaded conversations, and online meetings.
  • Office 365 Yammer: Large scale conversations for very large groups. This is an interesting tool if you want a social media enterprise solution. Commonly described as like Facebook for the enterprise.

Office 365 Groups

"Groups" is not an App or a "Thing."  It is a collection of people with shared permissions to Office 365 apps. When you create a "Group," you get a complete suite of tools at your disposal to get work done (e.g. – Teams, Yammer, SharePoint Online, etc…). The initial goal of Groups is to bring features of Distribution Lists into modern times. It provides similar benefits of Distribution Lists combined with Group mailboxes and adds OneDrive (SharePoint Online) and OneNote in a Hybrid approach. 

Groups are designed to be used by up to 500 users. They can scale beyond this number but other solutions are probably a better choice for very large groups (e.g. – Yammer or Distribution Lists). This is the future of traditional Distribution Lists.

Office 365 Teams

Teams is the Microsoft solution to a stand-alone collaboration tool (e.g. – Slack). It is built upon Office 365 Groups, but adds Skype for Business features and persistent chat. Teams are designed to be used by up to 600 users. However, if you need a to work with a larger audience, other solutions are a better choice (e.g. – Yammer or Distribution Lists). Teams is designed to allow Work or Project Teams the ability to work together more tightly than email alone allows. Teams also create an Office 365 Group which can also be used in Outlook.

Office 365 Yammer

Yammer is the Microsoft solution enabling very large groups of people that are loosely associated the ability to maintain a persistent chat like conversation. It is an appropriate choice for enabling an enterprise social network from Microsoft.

Where do we go from here?

In future installments, we will dig deeper on how to put all of this information to good use. How to choose the right tool for your organization, and how to steer clear of common pitfalls.  

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