It's hard to believe, but Business Productivity Office Suite was released in early 2008. This was Microsoft's first real cloud-based productivity suite that focused on basic messaging via Exchange Server and collaboration capabilities via SharePoint. Over the ensuing decade, BPOS transformed into what Microsoft now calls Office 365.
Much to Microsoft's credit, Office 365 product development has not stood still. There has been an ongoing feature evolution, with Microsoft adding hundreds of new features -- some visible and some foundational. Most subscribers are familiar with the core product set -- SharePoint for collaboration, OneDrive for file sharing, Exchange (née Outlook) for e-mail and Skype for Business (formerly Lync) for instant messaging. But are you familiar with all the new services and features that have been launched over the past year? If not, you're missing out on potential productivity enhancers. Here are three new Office 365 features that could help boost your productivity.
PowerPoint is one of the most pervasive business tools on the market. It's difficult for any business professional to avoid exposure to PowerPoint-based presentations. Unfortunately, the concept of a slide-driven narrative is older than the web. While it's been effective, many enterprises want new ways to convey information. Enter Sway.
Sway is a new approach to conveying information, based on a more fluid presentation. Sway is entirely web- and app-based. It is similar to Prezi, though with a more linear approach. Microsoft has delivered an Office 365 tool that simply creates an alternative to slide presentations, focusing on imagery and a more fluid narrative construction. The tool ships with several templates that set up a basic structure for a "sway." Users can then edit the template contents to match their needs. Because these sways live on the web, they're easily shared and edited among team members. When presented, they're shown through the mobile app or on a PC in a browser. In fact, on a PC, many of the typical PowerPoint gestures to advance slides also work with Sway.
At present, the Sway tool still feels siphoned off from the rest of the Office 365 features. But given the rate of change within the suite, Sway will likely evolve with the rest of its siblings.
Business process automation
SharePoint users are familiar with content workflows. If you want to automate simple tasks such as moving documents or updating metadata, SharePoint-based workflows can help. The trouble with SharePoint-based workflow has been that all activity is bound by SharePoint. In other words, if everything you need to accomplish is based in SharePoint, you can automate numerous process scenarios. If, however, you need to work with content or systems outside of SharePoint, it's challenging. Office 365 Flow aims to change this situation, in addition to making workflow automation easier to create for nontechnical users.
Flow is a relatively new service. It provides organizations with the ability to string together discrete event-action combinations that automate common tasks. For example, if you want to schedule a meeting in Outlook based on new customer leads in Salesforce CRM, Flow can help. If you want to transfer new files in Dropbox to OneDrive, Flow can help. If you want to send an email summary of tweets containing specific hashtags, Flow can help with that as well. All the default templates (prebuilt workflow snippets) accelerate workflow automation specific to your organization and allows customization.
What should be obvious is Flow is not bound by Microsoft products. There is a concerted effort to interact with systems outside the Microsoft product families, such as the Salesforce platform and Dropbox. Further, it appears that Microsoft has tried to help connect the tools that many organizations use collectively, which makes workflows more useful. Finally, the creation and overall management is entirely web-based, removing a usability barrier for nontechnical users.
Simple project management
Microsoft Project is a mainstay for project managers in organizations of all sizes. But it can be challenging to use for business users or folks that don't need all the Project functionality. Further, for simple projects, Project may be too burdensome to use the tool to its full extent. As a result, many organizations turn to simpler tools -- perhaps even the task list in SharePoint -- to help manage work. For those projects and organizations, the new Planner service in Office 365 features may be a good alternative.
Planner combines capabilities across the Office 365 features and creates a unified task management tool for small and medium-sized teams. Users can create new plans, add tasks and assign team members. Plans and tasks are managed directly within the Planner tool. Both are easily navigable, editable and visualized through the Planner interface. By contrast, other features like adding files to plans, assigning members to the plan or even adding notebooks are handled by SharePoint, Office 365 groups (a combination of SharePoint and Outlook) and OneNote respectively.
Unlike other composite applications that Microsoft has created with various products historically, Planner feels more cohesive and easier to use. Depending on the action you take, it's still clear that you're leaving the Planner interface and moving to something else. If you're adding a file, a new browser tab opens to display a document library. If you want to add notes, the OneNote web interface appears. However, Planner handles provisioning all of the related services in the background as a part of creating a new plan. As a result, some of the disconnects that these composite tools made users suffer don't seem to show up in Planner.
Over the past eight years, Office 365 features have matured a great deal. However, the rate of feature growth and maturation appears to have accelerated dramatically in the past two years. New features like Sway, Flow and Planner show that Microsoft is focused on enhancing their cloud-based productivity tools. Subscribers are introduced to new features regularly throughout the year. The challenge, now, is for organizations to keep up and make use of the new features without impacting their own productivity.
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