My thoughts on Office 365 Groups – NextGen Collaboration on Microsoft Cloud Platform – Are we ready for them?

The current landscape for Microsoft collaboration tools enables myriad of choices for all the organizations – SharePoint Team Sites, Yammer, and now new shiny kid in the neighborhood – Office 365 Groups.

Microsoft unveiled Office 365 Groups last fall and further announced the capabilities of new Office 365 Groups features and it’s road map at Microsoft Ignite 2015. I have said loud and clear during Ignite and afterwards that one feature really blew me away while I was at the Ignite was the Office 365 Groups. I was blown away by CodeName Oslo (Now Delve) at the SPC14 and Office 365 Groups did same to me at the Ignite 2015. Attendees who has seen the Office 365 Groups feature demoed at the Ignite has either prematurely, jokingly, or as a visionary, formed an opinion as possible replacement for SharePoint team sites or Yammer groups as modern collaboration tool. Being visionary is great but what about being realistic – Are we really ready to adopt Office 365 Groups now? After reading various blog articles, I thought it might be great to dive in this discussion and share my opinion.

What are the Office 365 Groups?

Based on what Microsoft has shared from engineering and architectural perspective, it’s still vague but at high level, Office 365 Groups are a NextGen collaboration tool on Office 365 platform unifying all the workloads like SharePoint Online, Exchange Online, OneDrive for Business, Delve, Yammer, and any other thing you would come across in the Office 365. Along with Delve, Microsoft termed Office 365 Groups as intelligent fabric which ties various workloads of the Office 365 as out of the box features.

The picture below depicts how Office 365 Groups would be key to bring all the Office 365 wild west workloads together. It’s nothing but unifying layer for all the Office 365 workloads – exchange online for mail & calendar & conversations, OneDrive for business and SharePoint for files, Skype for business for instant messaging and conversations (yes – no Yammer conversations as of now), and Office graph & Delve for groups insights. If that’s not enough, once Yammer is integrated with Azure AD, Office 365 Groups will be wired with Yammer down the road as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if existing exchange conversations replaced by Yammer social conversations by 2016.

Groups Building Blocks

From the business end, Office 365 has 6 core principles – Single definition, Public by default, Self-service, Sharing to non-members (even if they are not part of your active directory for external groups), Easy to Manage, and Contextual & historical. Out of all them, two most important core principles in my book are – Single Definition and Contextual & Historical. Not only they are best practices in many organizations but it’s really hard to achieve in a traditional manner.

  • Single Definition – Groups definitions are stored in the Azure Active Directory, which is underlying identity management system across all the Office 365 workloads (including Yammer in near future, which will trigger bringing yammer conversations in Office 365 in my book). Identify management is one of the biggest concerns in modern distributed/cloud architecture and having all these distinct systems talked to each other would have been tricky if it required identity sync from various workloads. From my end, Microsoft nailed this requirement of single identity and it’s a core foundational work for the Office 365 groups.
  • Contextual and Historical – One of the most important thing about Groups is having all the conversations whether it’s in email or instant messaging tool, stored at the same place. This itself is a great use case for the collaboration. If someone joins the team on 10th day or 2nd month (this happens almost every single project), all the historical and contextual information are available for someone to get up to speed. All the passive knowledge turns into gold for the new comer. What a win!!

Office 365 Groups – Under the Hood

As far as 1000 ft. architectural view, Office 365 Groups have three unique architectural components – single identity across all the platform, federated resources which would allow to extend this concept to future workloads (e.g. Yammer or Delve), and loose coupling of each services which would allow each workloads to build their processes to react group service contracts. Regardless of where Group creation request comes from, it will always gets created in AAD and feature called “Forward Sync” will notify each of the Office 365 services to provision their features as needed.

What I really liked here is each Office 365 workloads still have full freedom on what to do once request comes from AAD and what pieces needs to be provisioned immediately and what can wait. e.g. Whenever Office 365 Group is requested, SharePoint online provisions underlying expensive plumbing like site collections but wouldn’t provision document libraries until users in the group start creating or uploading documents. These documents won’t be visible to group users on their OneDrive for Business until document libraries are being used.

Groups Architecture

Having said that, personally I believe Office 365 Groups are in their infancy. It’s well-thought out robust architecture which has foundation for security, scalability, and service oriented architecture best practices. But, Office 365 groups still lacking guidance on how everything wired together including storage architecture, provisioning, deprovisioning, archival, and auditing process. There aren’t much guidance from the Microsoft on the governance and site life cycle management (there is no guarantee of Microsoft would deliver this either – even SharePoint Sites and Yammer having these issues).

Are Office 365 Groups ready to be adopted as collaboration platform?

First thing first, I don’t think Office 365 Groups are replacement for SharePoint Team Sites or even Yammer Groups. Without doubt, Office 365 Groups are NextGen Collaboration on Office 365 platform. But, if I need tools for large scale collaborations right now (as of May 2015) especially on the SharePoint On-Premises (and even on SharePoint Online at times), answer would be No.

As I have mentioned earlier, Office 365 Groups are in their infancy and might be mature enough within next few years for full blown adoption. It has started as promising platform which delivers great unified concept out of the box, first class Office 365 administration UI, APIs for extensibility, and most importantly Microsoft’s intention to make it real. There are still many features especially  workflows for business automation process, custom page authoring, custom lists and libraries, standardizing lists definition via content types are missing. Keep in mind that these will be typical business requests once honeymoon period is over after adopting current state of Office 365 Groups and IT may not have any place to hide except wait for Microsoft to deliver.

My personal takes here are:

  • Office 365 Groups are great replacement for the team sites and project sites collaboration in the SharePoint Online if you are willing to adopt Group features in the current state and if business is flexbile enough to adopt cloud release cycle. It is still immature for my liking and may not be 100% mature until second half of 2016. There are only five key features Groups have as of now – files, notes, mail, calendar, and conversations. Exchange calendar and mail integration are killer features something SharePoint team sites have tried in past using site mailbox features. These features might be good enough for most teams. Advance teams might require announcements, pages, tasks, contacts, custom apps, and many other things we are used to with SharePoint team sites. If you really are early adopter, I would suggest to start rolling out Office 365 Groups as pilots to the specific areas of the organization. Start avoiding SharePoint online for team sites unless you are required to customize business processes. It is important to note that organization size, culture, business needs, and licencing investments would have great impact on adopting Office 365 Groups as well. Just like few years ago, we had dilemma of SharePoint Social vs Yammer, now we have another dilemma of SharePoint Team Sites vs Office 365 Groups. Just like Yammer as an ESN investments, Office 365 Groups as a collaboration platform would be clear winner down the road but what about now? Tough choice to make especially if business can’t wait for maturity of Office 365 groups.
  • SharePoint team sites are still valid in the SharePoint on-premises for the collaboration. Probably only choice you have been left with because both Office 365 and Yammer are cloud-only feature as of now. Landscape for this may change once we have hybrid team sites in SharePoint 2016 and possible option to have hybrid Office 365 Groups where some of the exchange on-premises and SharePoint on-premises can be integrated with cloud feature. But, as of now – collaboration feature for SharePoint on-premises is tried and tested old friend – SharePoint team sites.
  • It is also important to note that while SharePoint team sites can be both collaboration and communication feature, Office 365 Groups are collaboration only features (as of now, until Microsoft offers more streamline publishing approach like NextGen Portals’ authoring canvas to create article pages). Organizations who requires traditional SharePoint intranets like corporate communication and department communication pages, SharePoint is still valid whether it’s SharePoint Online or SharePoint On-Premises.
  • Based on the Yammer roadmap at the Ignite 2015, Yammer will be integrated with Azure Active Directory later this year and integrated with Office 365 Groups in first half of 2016. Yammer will be treated as a App and integrated with Office 365 Groups as a exeprience making most possible candidate for replacing current exchange conversations with Yammer conversations. What this really means? In my book, it means Yammer will be treated as just like any other applications like SharePoint Online and Exchange Online in Groups scheme and Office 365 groups will be king of collaboration tools.

Like what Richard Harbridge & Kanwal Khipple mentioned in their Ignite session, there is no single solution to meet your business needs and you may want to rely on toolsets provided by Office 365 and adopt your tools as needed. There are cases where Yammer would make sense, at times SharePoint Online or OneDrive for Business would make sense, and there are times where Office 365 Groups would be a clear choice. It’s a nature of adoption of cloud offering. Think and weight your options and make wiser decision while you adopt!!!

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2 Responses to My thoughts on Office 365 Groups – NextGen Collaboration on Microsoft Cloud Platform – Are we ready for them?

  1. Pingback: Microsoft Ignite & SharePoint/O365 - Outcomes - Concurrency, Inc.

  2. Pingback: Microsoft Ignite & SharePoint/O365 - Outcomes | Drew Madelung

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