Can Office 365 Groups Make Your Business More Productive In 2016?
One of the most discussed topics of late with our clients for us here in Washington D.C. has been a relatively new functionality of the Microsoft cloud software-as-a-service ecosystem introduced as Groups for Office 365 at the Ignite 2015 conference.
The gist of this story is that the nice folks at Microsoft did their best to simplify the fragmented and oftentimes cumbersome collaboration tools within their offering, and streamline it within the Office 365 service by creating the group functionality as a
“shared workspace for email, conversations, files, and calendar events where group members can conveniently collaborate and quickly get stuff done”.
What we’ve seen from client organizations is that this service for Office 365 enterprise and education customers, finally allows teams, of all shapes and sizes, to easily collaborate and complete their tasks through the establishment of a single team/group identity which can be managed via the Azure Active Directory service, thereby allowing for unified control across all of the Office 365 apps including mailing with Outlook, file sharing with OneDrive for Business, collaboration with OneNote, communication via Skype for Business, and reporting and customer relationship and resource management with Power BI and Dynamics CRM respectively.
What is an Office 365 Group?
At this stage of development, an Office 365 Group by definition is in fact an email distribution list on steroids that integrates mailing with a shared document library as well as a group calendar. Groups in its simplest implementation are intended to allow any staff member to create and manage a group, thereby making it the perfect collaboration tool for small project teams and companies with limited IT support resources. The primary functionalities of Office 365 Groups allow organizations to:
- Engage in team/group discussions via email, by messaging the group directly from within their Outlook clients
- Keep track of shared documents, spreadsheets and various other files through a centralized and easily manageable document library
- Collaborate with research and seamlessly share information via the team’s/group’s OneNote notebook
- Have a clear overview of the team’s events and appointments inside the calendar in Outlook or Office 365
These are just the main functions of the basic group type which are most commonly used by small businesses and project teams. For larger organizations who previously have had to deal with a fragmented collaboration environment within the Microsoft product suite, Groups for Office 365 offer a level of control which was absent in the past, as it can be seen from the overview of different types of Office 365 Groups in the table below:
|Group Type||Primary Use|
|Group||Intended to enable communication, collaboration, and scheduling of events within teams. Groups allow users to create, search, and join Groups directly from their inbox/calendar as well as share files and folders in one centralized OneDrive for Business page.|
|Security group||This type is used to grant access permissions in bulk to a predefined group of users. One simple use case is creating a group of design specialists for a specific SharePoint Online site and assigning them read/write permissions as a team thereby enabling all of the members within that group to be able to view and edit the given site.|
|Mail-enabled security group||Similar to the security group, it allows management of access permissions to resources in Active Directory, but it also allows admins who wish to enable mailing to the security group to send emails to all members who are part of that team. If an admin creates a group that gives its members access to a specific corporate IT resource, they can send them mass notification emails to notify them on issues like downtime, maintenance or a power outage.|
|Distribution list||An update to the tried and tested method of sending emails to a group of people in bulk without having to type each individual member’s name and email.|
What are the key benefits of using Groups?
The primary goal and benefit of using Office 365 Groups is that it enables any member of an organization to create a Group within minutes and start collaborating as a team with all key stakeholders within a given project or department. End users and knowledge workers can greatly benefit from the self-service creation option, however, IT departments and system administrators still require control over the environment, and need to be able to easily manage the created groups, understand how those groups are used, and can control data and directories to ensure secure and compliant use of the shared information. This is why on the basis of popular demand, Microsoft has recently integrated a few key functionalities which present crucial admin tools for enterprise data management:
- Compliance & Protection – Office 365 Groups allow admins to perform eDiscovery & Litigation Hold on a group’s mailbox and shared files via the Exchange admin center and Office 365 Compliance Center, while the Azure Management Portal provides an overview of group management events like creation, updates, membership change log, etc.
- Extensibility – as it was announced at Connect(), the Microsoft Graph now includes the Office 365 Groups API and allows developers to connect groups with line of business applications
- Directory Management – administrators can create groups with rule based membership within the Azure Management Portal, thereby allowing easy management of larger groups and creating of groups which consistently reflect individual organizational structures
Leveraging Office 365 Groups Within Outlook 2016
With the release of the Office 2016 version of Microsoft’s flagship productivity suite, Groups took an important step forward with their integration right into Outlook 2016 as well as the releases of new mobile apps for Windows, as well as Android and iOS, called Outlook Groups. Making Group mailing and management OS agnostic along with the close integration with the latest version of Office, Groups finally offer capabilities to collaborate more efficiently with others in what is in our view currently the best use of corporate distribution lists, file sharing, scheduling and access permissions.
For organizations who are interested only in the basic function of Groups, Outlook 2016 makes group creation extremely easy, and allows additional stakeholders and new teammates to join existing groups on the fly and quickly get up to speed with an ongoing project. Every member of a team which is using Groups can join conversations, share files collaborate on notes, and schedule team meetings and events or participate in Skype for Business voice or video conferences in real-time.
In a BYOD world, the device agnostic Outlook Groups mobile apps for Windows Phone, iOS and Android, enable team members to keep track of developments and communicate with their teams straight from their mobile devices while on the go, without sacrificing crucial functions like conversations, file viewing, @mentioning of colleagues as well as discovery of other relevant groups within their organization.
Include Groups in Your New Year’s Business Resolutions List
If you’d like to better understand what makes your teams more productive, encouraging end users to utilize and fill Office 365 Groups with project related company documents and intellectual property, gives your organization the ability to tap into that data and convert it into meaningful information, not only about the progress of a specific company initiative, but also to better understand how your teams and employees interact. The key business benefit and potential for increased efficiency of Office 365 Groups lies in the Office Graph, a tool-set which promises to allow your organization to leverage machine learning to systematically score and rate documents that have been created or modified, importance of scheduled meetings as well as conversations that are taking place within applications such as Yammer.
To put this in perspective, we believe that the ability to leverage and analyze Office Graph data to better understand the interactions and processes within your organizations, offers unlimited potential for business process optimization and Groups are a way for management to drive adoption of organizational productivity features in an efficient and cost effective way. As more and more collaboration functions get integrated into the Groups experience for Exchange Online clients, the use of fragmented collaboration tools from OneDrive, Yammer, and SharePoint team sites will more than likely become obsolete, while allowing you to keep their best aspects at a fraction of the cost.This leaves only one question that you should concern yourselves with:
How will you migrate all your existing public folder and SharePoint team site data into Office 365 Groups?