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As teams become dispersed, it's more important than ever for them to be able to communicate and collaborate without extra effort.
Microsoft's offerings haven't always made that proposition easy; SharePoint is notorious for being difficult to configure and use. But with Office 365 Groups, it's striving to make the business of collaboration easier. Office 365 Groups is a hybrid of a traditional security group or distribution group, an Exchange public folder and a SharePoint document library. The Groups feature allows workers to form ad hoc teams to interact on projects, enabling real-time communication and document sharing. Outlook allows you to create shared calendars by emailing invitations and so on; Groups promises to accomplish this more quickly and efficiently. But the real advantage, it seems, is in sharing files.
Groups is part of Microsoft's broader strategy to expand adoption of its cloud services by integrating functionality in the spaces in between these services. Office 365 Groups is just one example of this. Groups allow users to access information in a variety of places, including a SharePoint or OneDrive for Business document library, a OneNote file, a shared mailbox or calendar on Exchange, Lync or Skype for Business meetings and data in the Dynamics CRM database.
How do Office 365 Groups Work?
The core of Office 365 Groups is Azure Active Directory, the repository of users that lives in the cloud. It contains the master data for each user as well as group identity and membership information throughout all Office 365 services. This group identity includes the users themselves, URLs for resources, who owns what groups and what each group's membership list looks like.
Services like Exchange and SharePoint each contain their own subversions of Active Directory, and Azure Active Directory federates and synchronizes with these directories, too -- in fact, that sync occurs regularly so that changes are propagated as soon as practical.
Since groups generally work with content, that data has to be stored somewhere, and in Office 365 Groups a single group is represented by a special kind of Exchange mailbox that most closely resembles -- but is not -- an Exchange 2013 site mailbox. This mailbox is created alongside a specialized SharePoint document library that looks like OneDrive for Business (but, again, is not), and this library stores all items that aren't posts, messages or calendar entries. On the Web side, these items are accessible within the "People" tab of Office 365.
There are challenges associated with Groups. The main issue is that, at least in the current iteration, they work only on the Web experience. So you can only interact with groups, see contents and work with data if you use the Office.com experience in your Web browser. The full Office 2013 desktop fat client (the most current release available) does not recognize Office 365 Groups. There won't be porting of the feature to previous versions, either. If your organization is on Office 2007 or Office 2010, Office 365 Groups works only if users split their time between desktop applications and a Web browser. Office 2016 will include support for these groups, but that requires an upgrade on all of your clients, a less-than-pleasant task for most organizations.
For larger organizations, another issue is the double-edged-sword of Office 365 Groups. Microsoft intends this feature to be largely self-service, where users can define their own groups and administer membership in those groups with tools built into the Web user interface or through the full applications on the Office 2016 desktop suite. Users can also browse a list of groups and sign themselves up to be members. This adds to the stickiness of this feature and destroys the artificial boundaries between departments and services that are bound to build up in organizations of any size. But there are several disadvantages apparent to administrators including:
- Who manages the proliferation of these groups? Who decides which content should be live as opposed to content that should be archived? How easy is it to spin up a group for a weeklong task and how easy is it to begin a new group that should live longer? Who defines these lifecycles?
- What happens when the next iteration or version happens? How do accounts and resources move around? The process is less than clear, particularly for users that have a hybrid deployment of Exchange, SharePoint or both.
Finally, do not hope to use the Office 365 Groups on-premises -- a common refrain with many services now offered in Office 365. There are no plans to bring them there -- probably because the interconnections between the services and the features are so tight and require such specific configurations that there is little hope of making any of this work on-premises. (In hybrid deployments, Office 365 Groups do make their way back on premises as regular, old-fashioned Exchange distribution groups with no other functionality.) So for those not yet in the cloud, there is no offering for you.
The Last Word
Features like Office 365 Groups, Delve and Office Graph highlight the small yet consistently growing chasm between on-premises software and cloud services, even if both are developed and delivered by the same company. While Office 365 Groups seems like a great addition to the cloud platform, its utility is currently limited, given that it exists entirely in Office 365 and requires a new version of Office to even function on non-Web apps.
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