Hubs, Groups, Teams, Sites – trying to understand them all

Microsoft is releasing new features into Office 365 at an unprecedented level – and it’s taking quite a lot of effort for experts in the field to stay current on what is what, let alone customers and end users!

Historically in Office 365 we had key product workloads:

* Azure is not technically part of Office 365 but powers several of the services

Then Microsoft acquired Yammer and worked to integrate it.

Then Microsoft released Office 365 Groups (aka Outlook Groups).

Then Microsoft released Planner.

Then Microsoft released Teams.

Then Microsoft released StaffHub.

And there is more coming…

As an example, Microsoft’s latest release StaffHub utilises ALL of the above workloads, as well as the Microsoft Teams chat service (not the actual product or interface).

Where previously IT admins would need to stitch together each individual component, Office 365 Groups has surfaced as the one substrate to rule them all – and that is a very good thing which continues to improve.

While the various integrations between workloads are still being rolled out, even when they are we will be left with things like:

  • An Office 365 Group gets a SharePoint team site, BUT a SharePoint team site does not require or create an Office 365 Group
  • A Yammer group can exist on its own, BUT can also create an Office 365 Group, BUT an Office 365 Group does not create a Yammer group
  • A Microsoft Team creates its own Office 365 Group or can be connected to an existing one, BUT an Office 365 Group does not provision a Team
  • A Planner creates an Office 365 Group, BUT each channel within a Microsoft Team can have its own Planner – BUT these cannot be accessed currently from the Planner/Groups interface
  • Each Microsoft Team channel creates a new section in the OneNote within the Office 365 Group, BUT you cannot access the sections of the OneNote file that existed before the Team channel was created
  • StaffHub creates an Office 365 Group, BUT an Office 365 Group does not create a StaffHub
  • StaffHub uses the Teams chat service, BUT you cannot access the StaffHub “chat” service from the Teams interface

Clear? No? Then you’re with the rest of us. Let’s not throw in marketing spin in there like the Surface Hub – which “unlocks the power of the Group”.

The reality is that the experiences and cross-integrations are improving at a rapid pace, so while this is currently confusing it is important to remember that in the past year Office 365 has taken a huge lurch forward away from siloed product-based workloads, and towards integrated experiences and services.

It is important to remember:

  • Microsoft Teams is still in preview and is expected to move to General Availability sometime in Q1 of this calendar year (let’s assume mid/late March to be safe)
  • Yammer is currently rolling out it’s Office 365 Groups integration
  • Planner has only been available since July 2016 and is iterating rapidly
  • Office 365 Groups integration with SharePoint team sites has only just begun rolling out in production
  • StaffHub was just released to General Availability in the past week

So strap in and hold on, it’s a wild ride!

However, on a serious note: while the pace of change is fast and not everything works the way we want – in some instances we need to be patient and wait for integrations or rollouts to finish. In other instances, ensure that we wrap customers and end-users with a big blanket of change management and hand-holding to get the greatest chance of successful adoption, actual productivity improvement and ultimately user satisfaction.

Too much conversation?

A song that has stuck with me since hearing in 1993 is “Too Much Information” by Duran Duran.
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The theme of the song is television pumping content and products at us with Simon Le Bon singing “it’s too much information for me”. The film clip itself is constantly moving with no single shot staying on the screen for more than a second. It’s visually exhausting to watch (albeit very enjoyable to listen to IMHO).

Change in our workplace continues to evolve at an ever-faster pace. In 2002 when RIM introduced the BlackBerry businesses flocked to purchase their products and integrate them with corporate messaging systems to allow mobile access to email. The device became known as the “CrackBerry” due to the fact that people who used them were constantly sending and replying to emails.

Enter the iPhone in 2007 when this functionality was brought to the masses and the corporate world walked into the IT department’s office with their new handset and said “make it work with my email”. This posed a challenge at the start, and would also herald the consumerisation of IT (remember that marketing term?).

For a while the world rested on a number of different communication modalities such as phone calls, text messaging, email, and (back then) disruptive technologies like Skype that provided text/voice/video.

Flash forward to the modern day and look around us at the variation of communication modalities available to us (and please don’t go hard on me as I’m nearing 40 and am not necessarily up to speed with all of the technologies available everywhere).

On my phone I have the following communication tools at my disposal:

App/Service Communication Modality Audience Individual/Group Messaging Capabilities Usage Level
Facebook Text (comments) Consumer Individual & Group High
Groups (Outlook) Text (email) Business Group Low
Instagram Text (comments) Consumer Individual Medium
LinkedIn Text Business Individual & Group Low
Messaging Text (SMS) n/a Individual & Group Low
Messenger (Facebook) Text, Voice, Video Consumer Individual & Group High
Microsoft Teams Text, Voice, Video Business Individual & Group Medium
Outlook Text (email) Business Individual & Group High
Skype Text, Voice, Video Consumer Individual & Group Low
Skype for Business Text, Voice, Video Business Individual & Group Medium
Twitter Text (same as SMS) Both Individual & Group Medium
WhatsAp Text, Voice, Video Consumer Individual & Group Low
Yammer Text Business Individual & Group Medium

I use most of those apps on a daily basis on my phone, but I am quite a connected and social person. I also vary and switch between applications for the same people on a regular basis.

For example, I may have a 1:1 conversation with Martina Grom and Darrell Webster (both Office 365 MVPs, friends, and co-contributors to community projects) separately using Facebook Messenger, but then we might also have a group conversation via Twitter group messaging. Why did we use Twitter group messaging instead of Facebook Messenger group messaging? Because Darrell initiated it and was probably using the Twitter app at the time he thought to start the conversation.

Conversely I may have a work conversation with one of my work colleagues via email, and then switch to Skype to talk about something not work-related. Why did we use Skype? Because perhaps that colleague doesn’t use Facebook but does use Skype.

Or I may have a short messaging conversation with a friend using Facebook Messenger but then we switch to text. Why? I don’t know – he started it. It doesn’t really matter as I’m still communicating with the same person.

What about my fellow MVPs and other friends who work at places that use Skype for Business? Do we message each other during the day on a consumer messaging platform, or switch to our Skype for Business work-based instant messaging platform because we know we have it and it’s easier than using something outside of our work context?

There are also a number of apps on the list above that I don’t use either due to platform or because I simply haven’t needed/wanted/gotten around to it – such as iMessage or FaceTime because I don’t use Apple products, Snapchat, Google Hangouts because I don’t use Google services, and I’m sure a whole bunch that I don’t even know of.

The challenge here is that the conversation is fragmented – it exists across a number of services and modalities. There’s no one communication flow and path.

And what happens to those users who are not “digital natives”? For example the conversation this morning with Martina and Darrell we were talking about the potential of using Medium as a publishing platform instead of our existing blog sites. So that prompted some research into why Medium over Tumblr or hosted versions of WordPress instead of our own hosted versions. Looking through the history of Medium we realised we were old and already behind the times. Think about that and the fact that we work with and have to keep current on a cloud platform that changes every day!

So in the workplace what can people expect?

Many IT departments and leadership do not drive the digital innovation that their organisations so desperately need. They leave the users to rely on email and perhaps even an instant messaging or conferencing system, but leave it at that because they believe their users fear or cannot handle change. Now I’m sure that millennials will put my communication app usage to shame, but the reality is that most people are already using more than phone calls and text messages on their phone. So why are IT departments limiting them to the same level of communications in the workplace?

Within Office 365 for many years we primarily had Outlook and Skype for Business (previously known as Lync, and previously before that known as Office Communicator). Back then the concept of instant messaging was disruptive enough, let alone computer-based audio/video calls and conferences. Then a few years ago came along Yammer and introduced enterprise social. In November 2016 Microsoft unveiled the preview of Microsoft Teams – something that brings together most of the previous three communication platforms in one application.

It is important when thinking that we know the best for our users and customers that we actually ask them.

It’s like expecting a marketing professional to work on a PC running Windows – sure they can make it work, but they’d probably be happier with a Mac. Perhaps we should ask them what they want and how they might work best before assuming our corporate standard is acceptable?

The same applies to every single user in an organisation. We don’t necessarily need to survey all staff, but it is important to make sure that their voice is heard and considered before choosing a communication platform for their organisation, department, or team.

A key point of the new communication world within Microsoft when we consider Outlook, Skype for Business, Yammer and Teams is that there is no “one size fits all” and that everybody works in different ways. I am more connected than a number of people I know, but then there are also a lot of people I know who are more connected than me. We need to make sure that we offer choice to people of all ages and levels.

My wife and I are both Generation-X and only two years apart (she is the younger one), yet I am the more technologically adept and social user. So straight away we have different communication modalities, speeds and preferences.

Let’s not be afraid of Teams or Yammer and the change they bring. Because if we do our users will use things like Slack and Facebook for Work that are beyond our control, security, identity management, and governance.

Let’s start a conversation about how people want to have a conversation, and go from there.