Inside SharePoint

SharePoint Tasks Reborn with New Office 365 Planner

Microsoft plans to release Office 365 Planner, a feature within Groups for team-based organization, as an alternative for SharePoint tasks.

What is the No. 1 tool for project management? The answer might surprise you: it's Excel. It's amazing to think that with decades of tool development, project management standards bodies and an entire industry with expertise in project and portfolio management, people resort to building simple work breakdown structures, task lists and calendars using Excel. When it comes to tracking project statuses, it's basic, but it gets the job done. People can get organized -- and instead of focusing on complex tools, they can focus on their work.

Early in my career as a business analyst and then as a technical project manager, I was introduced into the world of portfolio management, and ended up working with some fairly complex project management platforms and tools at a few different companies before moving over to the world of collaboration and SharePoint. My first SharePoint project, in fact, included a Project Server deployment that tied into SharePoint -- which led me down the path of going to work for Microsoft.

In the years I was working for Microsoft, I would anxiously attend the annual employee product expo, where internal teams had the ability to demonstrate their cool new features and evolving ideas about how to solve fundamental business and productivity problems. Each year I made my way toward the Project Server and MS Project booth, hoping to see some new innovations (or, as I had experienced on a couple deployments, solve some underlying issues) -- and each year I was disappointed by the lack of progress being made.

Honestly, Microsoft should own the project management space outright. But even with Excel being the most common tool used, the company owns just a fraction of the overall space. Why? In my opinion, like any kind of collaboration, one size never fits all. There are so many different variants in style and methodology that as you add complexity to a solution you quickly start to lose customers, each of whom wants something different.

In the run up to SharePoint 2013, I found myself sitting in a Microsoft conference room in Redmond with members of my team (a former employer that developed migration and administration tools) and a couple gentlemen from the SharePoint product team who had both recently moved over from the Project Server group. The purpose of the discussion was to learn about what was coming with SharePoint 2013 around task management and the inclusion of "lite" project management features within the latest SharePoint release. We had a great discussion, and I walked away genuinely excited by what I heard. The problem, we had all agreed, was that the majority of tools on the market attempted to solve too many problems (once again, complexity equals decreased market opportunity) and what people in the SharePoint ecosystem generally wanted was basic list management capability, task assignment, task visibility across sites (even across farms) and simple dashboarding. That's it. And that's what they planned to provide. It was not meant to be a replacement of Project Server, but could be used as a way to introduce customers to that world, one baby-step at a time.

So SharePoint 2013 went live, and the path toward "project management-lite" features, seemed solid. I remember giving many demos of the simple, out-of-the-box project management capabilities in SharePoint. And then somewhere along the way, things went awry. Tasks and Outlook Sync went away, Tags and Notes were deprecated and nothing was provided to replace them. Long-story-short: Microsoft said it was making some foundational changes, both to Office 365 and SharePoint on-prem, and that the new direction would be forthcoming.

That was a year ago. In the meantime, many folks looked for alternatives to fill the PM-lite needs for their teams. Personally, I started using Trello for list and task management, which uses a simple drag-and-drop kanban model, which is popular with many agile development organizations. So popular, in fact, that SharePoint vendors started popping up with very slick solutions (I blogged about this a while back), and a few enterprising individuals have created freely available scripts and tools for SharePoint, whether online or on-prem (check out SPWidgets Board Widgets, for example). Again, all of this happening while customers are still out there building SharePoint team sites with Web parts (er, sorry, apps), purchasing third-party project management tools and subscribing to one of a bazillion Web-based solutions. And not one of those solutions has anything close to a reasonable market share.

Enter Office 365 Planner, a new "experience" within Office 365 Groups and part of the project formerly known as "Highlander," which Microsoft is marketing not as a project management tool, per se, but as a team-based organization tool, and a new feature within Office 365 Groups. Each Office 365 Group now includes a Planner, which is modeled after kanban lists, with "boards" and lists that can be created to adhere to a process or project methodology, each with individual "cards" wherein documents can be attached, people assigned, due dates, priorities set and so forth.

How is this a replacement of SharePoint Tasks, you ask? Well, any documentation attached to a card in Planner is automatically saved to SharePoint Online, which would then allow you to centrally manage that content, apply compliance and security policies and monitor usage analytics. One can only assume that, in the future, you'll have different options for where your content is saved, and there will be additional capability made possible through an individual card. And who said you have to replace a SharePoint feature with another SharePoint feature? The point here is that the Office 365 ecosystem has replaced the Tasks functionality with a novel approach. Introduced this week by Microsoft, Principal Group Program Manager Howard Crow explained that "Planner can be used to manage a marketing event, brainstorm new product ideas, track a school project, prepare for a customer visit or just organize your team more effectively."

Along with the official Office Team blog post, prominent Microsoft MVP Dan Holme described Planner as "Microsoft's long-awaited, modern, mobile- and cloud-first solution for task management and lightweight project management." Although we do not yet have dates for availability, we do know that customers and partners on the First Release program will see Planner sometime in Q4, possibly as soon as the next couple weeks. But while people are excited to try it out, Holme did point out that there are still many unanswered questions, stating that "I'm not 100 percent clear from the blog post what the relationship is between groups and plans. I'm assuming there's a one-to-one relationship, which is supported by the screenshots in Crow's post. I assume that also means that the SharePoint site for the plan/group is 'hidden' in the background, as is the case for a group."

While we're still dealing with screenshots and marketing at this point, it appears that Microsoft is already getting a positive response from the market on this new Planner experience. It's a much needed capability, and I'm looking forward to trying it out.

Will it replace Excel as the No. 1 tool of choice? Probably not, but there's plenty of room in the marketplace for Microsoft to make some waves -- and this is the kind of solution that could help convince yet another segment to make the move to Office 365.

About the Author

Christian Buckley is a SharePoint and Office 365 MVP, who has worked on the SharePoint team at Microsoft and later served as an evangelist at Echo Technology, Axceler and Metalogix. A frequent speaker and blogger, he’s now the CMO of Beezy. Follow him @BuckleyPlanet.

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