Your approach to Office 365 administration needs to change

Let’s start this post by getting the right audience. If you don’t administer an Office 365 environment, then you are not my target audience. What I would like you to do however, is to send it on to people who are responsible for Office 365 administration and support. If it’s a customer, then treat it like a grenade; throw it and run.

Now that I’ve got the right person’s attention, let’s chat.

Office 365 is a very large platform of core workloads and interconnected services and applications. It is not simply Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, and Office ProPlus. This was the case up until about 2014, when the main focus of Office 365 was around migrating from on-premises infrastructure to the cloud. Since 2014 though, the platform has changed and grown, with lots of different apps and services sprouting from the core workloads.

Sure, sure, you already know this stuff. Why should you keep reading? Because Office 365 changes every week, faster than you are keeping up with. New features are added across its ever-growing suite of applications almost on a daily basis.

The problem is that Office 365 is often left to be administered by the same people who run the on-premises server environments. The same environments that received a patch every few months, and an upgrade every few years. Changes to this environment were few and far between. Stability was crucial in order to deliver availability and dependability.

However in the new world these must also be supplemented but agility and curiosity. No, you don’t need to change your job role overnight. No, you don’t need to be a developer. No, you don’t need to be plugged in to the Matrix to stay up to date. But you do need to change, and you need to start now.

Many organisations I’ve worked with over the past couple of years are “on Office 365”, but have no idea what exists beyond their mailbox, files, or communications.

I’ve dealt with organisations that want to drive adoption but have not enabled Microsoft 365 Usage Analytics and so therefore don’t even know how the platform is being used. These are the same organisations that think their implementation of Office 365 was done perfectly because their team have had experience with the platform before, or they engaged a top-tier integrator to help them.

I recently presented on 5 Microsoft 365 Teamwork Tools for IT Pros at Ignite the Tour in Sydney and was amazed that when asked, almost nobody put their hand up to say they knew what each of the items were that I presented on. It hit the point home, and unfortunately struck a nerve with me.

Many IT pros I’ve met think they know everything. Sure I may be generalising here, but I deal with them every day. I also make this claim having been a systems administrator in a previous life, so I once had the same mindset.

It absolutely floors me how little IT pros I meet know about their Office 365 environment or features. Often users know more than the IT pros themselves, because the users want something and go seek out the information. In many organisations I’ve dealt with, “shadow IT” is rampant with the usual offenders (Dropbox, Google Drive, Slack, Zoom, SurveyMonkey, Webex, etc.). IT complains about this and tries to lock it down. The shadow IT often exists because users don’t know that the same functionality they sought externally is already available and right under their noses – because IT hasn’t enabled it. This is often because IT doesn’t understand it themselves, or even know it exists in the first place.

Let me give you some examples I’ve encountered over the past year to put this in context:

  • At Microsoft Ignite in Orlando, Florida in 2018 an audience member came up at the end of a session I was involved in and asked how we keep up to date with everything that’s going on in Office 365. We explained that one of the core areas to rely on is the Message Center. His response was that he doesn’t have the time, or remember to go in there and check what’s new. We let him know that every week the Message Center sends out a digest of new and upcoming changes to all administrators, which was a complete surprise to him. This email can also be sent to two alternative email addresses, which could be a channel in Teams, a group in Yammer, or even a classic distribution list.
  • Another person at Ignite 2018 asked me where the Skype for Business booth was, and if Microsoft Teams was replacing it. That big piece of information had actually been announced at Ignite in 2017 and was fairly well covered in blogs and tech news since then.
  • Another person asked me if they needed Office 365 Groups to use Microsoft Teams, and if they could create Teams without SharePoint.
  • An education institution asked me to help them find an archiving product. As we went down the journey I asked the question “why don’t you just use archiving in Exchange Online, you’re licensed for it?” – they were dumbstruck as they weren’t even aware that the functionality existed.
  • An enterprise that I was talking to had switched over to Office 365 from a competing platform and wouldn’t let me look under the hood over their environment, stating that it was “new as of a few months ago” (despite the fact they’d been using it for a year). When I tried to explain that there had been a number of changes and new features since their specified “new as of” date, they still pushed back under the view that they knew everything they needed to. However when I asked them for usage reports it took a week to find them, and when they produced the data it was from the Office 365 admin centre; not the Microsoft 365 Usage Analytics. In fact the latter was not even enabled because they didn’t know its existence, despite it being made available months before their “new as of” date.
  • One organisation I spoke to at the start of this year had planned to deploy Skype for Business to all staff for instant messaging and presence, and at the same time deploy Microsoft Teams for a pilot. In the second half of the year they planned to go full voice with Skype for Business, and then roll out Microsoft Teams to the entire organisation. When I queried this dual approach, they answered that Microsoft Teams did not have voice capabilities so they needed to use Skype for Business. I very politely informed them that I was in fact calling their PSTN conference bridge from my Microsoft Teams account. There was an awkward silence followed by an “oh”.
  • A private sector organisation I was helping had disabled external sharing completely across SharePoint and OneDrive. Their argument was that they didn’t want people to share things without their knowledge. As I helped them along the journey and got them using Cloud App Discovery, they discovered that many in the organisation used Dropbox on a daily basis through free accounts. I showed them the audit log in Office 365 that would allow them to create alerts and reports on external sharing and how to configure DLP policies; features they didn’t know even existed.
  • A university I worked with told me they didn’t realise what Office 365 Groups were until half a year after the functionality was made available. By that stage students had created hundreds of groups with all kinds of names (some inappropriate). The same happened again with Microsoft Teams.
  • Almost all clients I work with have many settings left to their defaults which is often dangerous. Some examples are the ability to sideload apps in Microsoft Teams, or use third-party storage platforms in Office Online or Microsoft Teams, or calendar sharing set to full details, and so on and so forth. This is usually because the settings are new, or the admins just never looked in all corners of the environment.
  • Many of the clients I’ve come across aren’t aware they can even control who creates an Office 365 Group, or for that matter what the features are when they get an Office 365 Group. These are the same clients who want Microsoft Teams, and want it now.

Some of the examples might resonate with you, especially if you’re a consultant like me. Some examples might have you thinking that I’m being a bit harsh, and you’re possibly right. I’ve lived and breathed Office 365 for almost a decade (since I first started using its predecessor BPOS in late 2008), so I know a lot about it. I would never say I know everything about it, because that’s just impossible – it’s too big. My beef is with the amount of IT pros who I come in contact with who are responsible for Office 365 and believe their environment is fine or that they know enough, but actually know very little about it.

The mindset must change here, because IT in the modern era does a lot more than simply support business functionality – it enables and enhances it. Therefore, the IT pros who are responsible for the systems and platforms can’t just have a business as usual attitude. Yes, I get it – they have other systems they need to administer and support, but that’s just a state of the world – not an excuse.

Office 365, despite being built on Exchange and SharePoint is not a platform that is patched from time to time, it is a platform that is updated daily – and so too must your knowledge.

Also published on Medium.

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