If you had a time machine and could go back and change one decision, there’s a good bet it will be to do something that you thought was a good idea at the time but missed the boat on. Why didn’t I start a shopping website in the 90s for selling my junk? Why didn’t I invest in Apple when it looked doomed? Well I can’t change those or anything else, but I can look ahead into my crystal ball and try and work out what I should be doing next for my career. I think making sure you know everything there is to know about Office 365 Groups is a great idea. It’s not going to make you millions of dollars (or is it?) but it certainly could be a foundation for the next step in your career.
So what is Office 365 Groups?
As the name kind of implies, it’s a feature of Office 365. Before the days of cloud-based commodity services being available to all, you would usually implement all the services you need within your own data center. If you want email (and have sense), you’d implement Exchange Server, if you want File Storage you’d set up a file server, and if you wanted somewhere to collaborate or set up an intranet you might install SharePoint. Then, when your users asked you for access to shared resources, you’d manually set up shared areas in each of these systems as and when required. So – you might set up a Shared Mailbox for a new project, and then maybe create them a File Share, then perhaps if they need it, create a SharePoint site… the list goes on and on.
This method of creating isolated, loosely coupled systems has been handy for administration purposes – you can upgrade one without affecting the other – but it has sucked from a user perspective. If you are just trying to do your day to day job you need to call IT to create you something similar to what you might have had last time, and hopefully you will remember all the services you needed or asked for.
The idea of Office 365 Groups is to change all of that completely – starting with the integration. Conceptually, the “Group” bears similarities to what you know and love as a Group – an object that has a name (“Jeff’s Project”) with a list of members (“Jeff” and “Jeff’s PA”). It then can be used as security identifier to grant access to services (“Jeff’s Project team can access this area for files”) or as a way to contact everyone.
Going past the core concepts
Beyond that basic tenet, though, everything changes. Groups integrates into lots of different Office 365 services and provides access to shared resources that live and die with the group itself. In Outlook, an Office 365 group has a shared mail or conversations area, a calendar, and controls for using it as a shared mailbox or distribution group. If you remove that group, the underlying mail functionality is removed. It’s the same in OneDrive – a shared OneDrive file share is created which is bound to the group rather than any individual. Across all the services in Office 365, you either get a shared resource provisioned, access to specific “Group only” functionality, or if you don’t now – that functionality will be coming soon.
From a user perspective, it is also very different. Groups have rich metadata – such as a group photos or logos and different roles, such as admins and normal members. Groups can be public, so everyone can access the information (think of how a public Yammer group works today) or private for more sensitive stuff. Fundamentally though, something else changes – the lifecycle of a group can be controlled by the user. By default, users can create groups – and on an ongoing basis you expect them to take over management.
Services like messaging are also presented differently. With a shared mailbox, the group of users who access it will use it to organize and receive email. They won’t use it to hold conversations. With Office 365 Groups though, it’s encouraged to use it in this way, more like a traditional Distribution Group, or more accurately – more like a forum for conversations. You’ll see this immediately after creating a group, as no folder structure is available like a mailbox and instead you reply to messages in the group. You can also add in people by email – but fundamentally you collaborate with each other within the group itself.
Taking things further away from the Distribution Group concept and more towards a group chat application is the mobile client. You’ll see in my example below on Android we’re can join the conversation via the dedicated Outlook Groups app, with links to the group’s files and notebook available. It’s got the real potential to be used within teams as a replacement for group chat products like Slack.
What cool stuff can you only do with Groups
When Groups first came onto the scene, it was certainly handy to have a simple way to provision access to multiple services and they all integrated well, and had a fancy look and feel. Fundamentally though, without Groups it was still possible to do the same thing – you could create a SharePoint Site and use Site Mailboxes, for example.
That’s changed very recently as the first services that require groups are beginning to be released. Just over a week ago, Microsoft Planner was released and it can’t be used without Office 365 Groups.
If you’ve seen or used Trello, then you will have a good idea of what Microsoft Planner is. It allows you to use your Office 365 Group as a way of assigning tasks to the group members. You can manage tasks for multiple groups, and within each group you can create “buckets” of tasks to logically separate them. For example, your team might have a bucket of tasks for working on strategic tasks, another for documentation updates, and so on. It’s not a full project management tool, but it’s certainly useful for managing team or the lower level project tasks.
Microsoft have also made Office 365 groups extensible. Using the connector feature, you can hook up an external service to the group. For example, if you use the service desk software Zendesk, you can connect your IT service desk’s Office 365 group directly to the Service Desk system.
In the past, you would instead need to have a shared mailbox for the team and configure email notifications or similar. This integration with third party software means that groups extend their functionality outside of purely Office 365. Also, this means that either by adding an app from a library or making your own customizations, you can get a lot more value out of the group with very little effort.
If you do still have on-premise systems that you do need to provision access to, all is not lost either. The Directory Sync tool, Azure AD Connect, has a “Groups write-back” functionality that allows for groups to be copied from the cloud to the local Active Directory and used like traditional security groups – handy for you legacy folks.
Where do I start?
So if you’ve decided to be an expert on groups, where do you start? If your organization is already using Office 365, then you’ve got a head start. It’s available in every Office 365 tenant and you don’t even need administrative rights to start creating and using groups. If you plan to do this with your internal organization though, tread carefully. Don’t just start adding groups all over the place to see what works. Like any new technology, it requires some careful thought and testing before pushing ahead and jumping in. Create a test group for a smaller part of the organization, such as your team, and get to know the features and functionality.
If you aren’t on Office 365 – or have chosen to disable Office 365 groups in your organization’s tenant, then all isn’t lost. Any free Office 365 trial includes groups functionality. You can sign up for a free trial on the Microsoft Office site. Once signed up for a temporary trial tenant, you can start playing with Office 365 groups in a safe sandbox using separate test accounts. Just remembee, if it’s a trial you plan to throw away, use a tenant name you won’t want later on, like “stevedemo1234.onmicrosoft.com” rather than “steve.onmicrosoft.com."
When you’ve set up your test groups, be sure to install the latest clients on the devices you think you’ll need to access Office 365 from. Office 365 Pro Plus (the full desktop install of Office 2016 that’s supplied with Office 365) includes access to groups direct from Outlook, along with the ability to access Group notebooks and files from within the app. Supported browsers – IE11, Microsoft Edge and the latest versions of Firefox, Google Chrome, and Safari are also worth installing and testing. On mobile devices, don't only install the Outlook Groups apps, but also install the complementary Outlook app, SharePoint app, OneDrive for Business App, OneNote app, and if you want to edit documents within groups, the Word, Excel and PowerPoint apps. These will allow you to explore the full functionality available on mobile and see how the applications interact with each other.
Above all, though, take the time to really understand how the technology itself can then be taken forward to be used within your organization. It’s easy to understand the technology itself, but if you can’t see business problems that could be solved or find a good use case for how it can improve processes, then it’s unlikely your experiment with Groups will be a success.