Inside SharePoint

Will Office 365 SharePoint Online Groups Displace Yammer?

A huge benefit of community feedback is that you get to hear opinions from people across a wide span of backgrounds, roles, industries and experiences. The downside is that you may not like what you hear. While Microsoft has received a lot of praise over the past year or so for opening up the doors of communication through various channels -- as well as for making their product roadmaps more transparent -- they've also received some tough feedback.

As e-mail distribution groups and forums have been redirected toward Yammer, the Office 365 Network has become the primary location for all public discussions with the Microsoft product, marketing, and engineering teams. While many customers have had to adjust to this new online location for connecting with Microsoft, activity on the Office 365 Network is growing rapidly. As for the tough feedback -- one of the more heated discussions in the past couple months has been the discussion around Office 365 Groups and Yammer.

The discussion really has two branches: first, there is confusion around whether Office 365 Groups will be replacing Yammer, and second, there is a discussion around the underlying technology used within each.

For those unfamiliar with the topic, maybe a bit more background is in order: Back in September 2014, Microsoft announced the availability of Office 365 Groups as a way to "connect with colleagues, information, and applications" across workloads, beginning with Office 365 e-mail, calendars, and OneDrive for Business. Rather than a new product, Groups is an architectural feature that creates an ad hoc space for collaboration that reaches across the many services within Office 365 to provide a contextual view or lens into a project, a topic, or a team. For example, I have a new customer and create an Office 365 Group for my internal team, giving myself, my two engineers, and my project manager a way to organize ourselves, our content, our calendars, and our conversations around that customer. E-mail for this customer will still appear in my regular Outlook inbox, just as the content I store in OneDrive for Business or SharePoint are still available to anyone with the right permissions. But by moving to the customer Group that I created in Office 365, my view becomes filtered or contextual, allowing me to focus on the content and activities surrounding that one client.

On the other hand, Yammer is a tool for community discussions. You might create a Yammer Group for your customer, and allow people not on your project team to subscribe to the feed and participate in discussions. Yammer excels when you're looking for feedback/input from across a broad community. For example, you might share the outline of your customer deployment, and benefit from feedback and experiences of other project teams. Or maybe someone within engineering has seen a similar technical issue and provides a link to the relevant documentation. Yammer allows you to tap into the collective wisdom and experience of your organization.

When you walk through these two scenarios, the differences between Office 365 Groups and Yammer are readily apparent. Groups are more or less a filter or a view of your data, while Yammer is a community-building tool and a place where content is created (conversations).

Where much of the confusion comes from is how the strategies for both have been communicated. The response from Microsoft is that Groups are "just another modality," meaning that they are just another way of collaborating with your team, your company, or with another individual. While this is certainly true, it doesn't exactly clear up the confusion. But what is frustrating is not that Microsoft did not anticipate the confusion between Office 365 Groups messaging and Yammer's positioning, but that as the community has provided feedback and expressed confusion, the messaging coming out of Redmond has not really changed. In a recent blog post on the confusion around the messaging for Groups and Yammer, I wrote:

"When we remind ourselves that Microsoft is focusing on "platforms and productivity" it makes sense that they're going to provide a number of different tools to meet many different styles, needs, and modalities.  When Microsoft talks about providing options, what they mean is that conversation today happens across many different platforms. And they're completely right: I have discussions across Skype for Business, Facebook, Yammer, through e-mail, and on my phone via SMS, Slack, and Facebook Messenger. Different conversations via different constituencies. Different modalities. It's how we increasingly communicate with our vast personal and professional networks."

I think people largely understand and agree with this concept, but it does not entirely answer the first point above. The official statement out of Redmond is no, Office 365 Groups will not replace Yammer. Eventually, Yammer conversations (and Yammer Groups, which is not confusing at all) will be accessible through Office 365 Groups as another service. While we do not yet know how this experience will come together, we can assume that an Office 365 Group will create some kind of related Yammer group or tag, allowing users to quickly jump to relevant Yammer conversations. While there is some confusion around messaging of Office 365 Groups versus Yammer, the use cases for each are very different. However, while Office 365 Groups will not replace Yammer functionality, the reality is that Groups will likely displace Yammer.

This is more than just a semantic point. Office 365 Groups will not replace the Yammer technology -- they are different tools, and they have different use cases. However, I do believe that as Office 365 Groups begin to take hold within organizations, teams will choose to have their social conversations in-line with their deliverables and e-mail threads, and will choose to not duplicate these conversations within Yammer, and as such, Groups will displace Yammer. For some organizations, Yammer will fit their culture and requirements, while others will find a better match using the Groups capability.

The second point above -- that the underlying technology used to power Office 365 inline conversations is different from what powers Yammer -- is a separate topic entirely. What I mean by this is that the social dialog that you have while co-editing a document is different than the Group conversation you have in Outlook, both of which are different than the conversations you have in Yammer, or in Skype for Business. The fact that there are several (I'm counting four) technologies through which you can lead a conversation is a topic that deserves its own post. 

Microsoft has always talked about providing choice, and I agree with this concept wholeheartedly. Which takes me back to the point I made in my previous blog post, "I don't want Microsoft telling me which tools to use: provide the platform, get out of the way. But please do provide the tools that allow me to manage my chosen collaboration modality, including turning off those options which I feel would degrade my enterprise conversations."

One comment made in the Office 365 Network discussion on Groups that I have heard repeatedly, and which I have to agree with, is that there seems to be a disconnect between the Yammer development organization and the mainstream Office 365 development teams. At least this is how it appears to the outside world. Sitting through sessions at Ignite and other conferences, Microsoft presenters on Office 365 topics talk about working across workstreams, and share a united vision of how the disparate pieces of the puzzle fit together under the Office 365 brand. However, it seems that the Yammer team tends to perceive the world through the Yammer lens only.

In this new age of communication and openness, my feedback on closing the messaging gaps between Office 365 Groups and Yammer is to align these constituencies.


About the Author

Christian Buckley is an independent researcher, technology evangelist and Office Servers & Services MVP with more than 25 years of experience working with collaboration, social and supply chain technology.


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