Office 365 Groups: The Duck-Billed Platypus of Collaboration Tools

So it’s been several months since Microsoft announced their new “cloud-first, mobile first” push and with it the concept of intelligent, next-gen portals.  Since then they’ve rolled out some really cool tools like Sway, Delve, Videos, PowerBI  that we can use as point solutions or integrate into so many different custom apps and solution contexts.   So far so good!   But then, just as I was starting to feel really good about all of these developments … along comes Office 365 Groups and I must say, at first they really started to bum me out!

If you haven’t heard about them yet, here’s an introductory video on Groups from Microsoft:

It sounds so nice, right?   But then I actually used it, and it made me go … hmmm?   Maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the last 14 years helping clients use SharePoint to solve real business problems, but Groups seems not only limited, but also poorly conceived, and badly executed. Sorry … just trying to keep it real.

Office 365 Groups is what I call the “duck-billed platypus of the Office 365 environment” because it seems kinda freakish, like a solution in search of a problem, with different individual parts all stuck together in a “wicked awkward” fashion (that’s Maine-speak).  When you create a new Group, you get the following pieces:

  • Conversations:  Someday will be a Yammer feed but now it’s basically a shared mailbox.
  • Files:  an administratively locked-down SharePoint site collection that give you a single un-customizable document library (that’s right, a whole site collection for a single doclib).
  • Notebook:  a OneNote notebook.
  • Calendar:  an Exchange calendar

They’re all loosely stuck together via a tiny “menu” that appears in different places but mostly at the top of the page (look for the ellipsis).  When you bounce between the various Group components, new browser windows pop up (sometimes but not always), and there are so many UI context switches it’s hard to remember that all these pieces are somehow supposed to be part of the same collaborative experience.  And focus on experience is supposed to be one of the advantages of Groups?  It’s mystifying, maybe, but certainly not “magical“. 

At first, people who are comparing it to Dropbox, etc., won’t know how lame Groups are, but people with any prior experience with Office 365 and SharePoint (and there are lots of them) will quickly realize that the “site” you get with Groups is totally locked down so you can’t do anything you normally can do with a site, and that a document library in Groups has no custom metadata, no content types, no site columns, no custom views, no workflows, and on and on.

And please don’t just take my word for it.  Go ahead and spin up your own Groups and poke around a bit. Find out what you can do with them and what you can’t do. See how they match up functionally with Team Sites.   See what you think about the UI.  Maybe I’m being too hard on them?  But I don’t think so.

So then, why on earth would Microsoft go and create this Group thing when Team Sites have so much more to offer AND are already included in Office 365?  So I searched around and found some interesting insight from Benjamin Niaulin, a cool guy and SharePoint MVP at ShareGate, and it helped shed light on what might be behind Microsoft’s decision to launch Groups.  His comments were in a webinar he did a couple months ago.  Here’s an except from the transcript:

“Every little startup in the world, every little company can build a new application, ….. And Microsoft has to deal with these companies that are focused on delivering these Web solutions directly on the Web that everyone has access to.

So now, what’s happening is IT doesn’t make as much as the decision, but it’s the business, its people in HR and marketing, communications. They say, “You know what? Let’s use Dropbox. Let’s use WeTransfer. Let’s use YouTube. Let’s use a Facebook private group.”  And as they’re moving away to these other services that they’re consuming, Microsoft said, “Well, we need to deliver something that’s easy to use so that a group of people can work together easily.” And that’s where group comes in.” [emphasis mine]

OK, so Groups seems to be a reaction to the market success of quick and dirty file sharing apps. The singular overriding goal for Groups was to make it easy for “Joe User” to spin up a lightweight (and dare I say, dumbed down?) collaboration environment without any IT involvement or oversight.  Quite a low bar, but OK as a defense move against other lightweight collaboration tools like Dropbox, etc..    Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?

So probably it was the right business move for Microsoft to make … I wouldn’t know about that, but what I do know is that we  shouldn’t downplay or minimize just how limited Groups are when we talk about them with our clients.  And let’s all be more up front about all the things that you can’t do with Groups.   Far better for people to know up front so they can make an informed decision before they create a ton of Groups only to hit an impenetrable wall down the road.  You want quick and dirty … fine.  But know what you’re giving up first.

So then what’s the right use case for Groups?   There’s only one IMHO … and that is  limited-functionality, quick and dirty, throw-away collaboration environments.    If that’s all you want to do … go for it!   But if you want to do any more than that (or think that you might want to do more someday in the future),  I’m strongly recommending that you avoid Groups and use Team Sites instead.

I know a lot of people are praising Groups these days, and that I’ll probably hear comments about me being a Luddite, that I’m “comparing apple and oranges”, or that you have to “choose the right tool for the job”.   So go ahead … but if you ask me, we need to use extreme caution when promoting the business use of Groups in Office 365, because clients who say they’re fine with “quick and dirty” … are usually only thinking about the quick part.  And with Groups, you’re going to get dirty.

So what has your experience been with Groups?  Are you diving in?



Author: David Remillard

Our best projects are those which become a partnership between our client and FTG. I enjoy learning the details about our client's businesses and what each client wants to achieve with Office 365. Also enjoy brainstorming about client's pain points and business challenges and different ways that SharePoint might be used to help achieve your goals. We help you understand what is easy and what is hard in SharePoint and how to design solutions for maximum value. We create a shared vision, and build it out in increments with frequent project touch points, ensuring high-value business solutions that are closely aligned with your specific business environment (size, culture, budget constraints, tech comfort level, remote offices, etc). We live on repeat business and grow our business with clients who value practical business insight as well as technical skill.

One thought on “Office 365 Groups: The Duck-Billed Platypus of Collaboration Tools”

  1. Just wanted to share the love on something that happened to me today.
    I had some files in a SharePoint sub-site that are gone. Well actually the entire sub-site is gone. The site is gone after deleting an “Office 365 group”
    Beware of this M$ Collaboration tool called “Office 365 Groups”. BEWARE !!!

    Upon deleting the 0365 group the site and its content are no more.
    Was not expecting the site to disappear along with the group. No Warning!!!!

    And there is no way to recover the o365 group.
    And no way to recover the SharePoint site.
    !!! BEWARE !!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s