Posey's Tips & Tricks

Why You Should Be Thinking About Groups for Office 365

Groups brings together the best features and functionality of multiple Microsoft services under one roof.

For most of my IT career, Microsoft has been bundling software into suites. Microsoft Office is a bundle of applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Office 365 is also a software bundle (sort of), consisting of applications such as Exchange, SharePoint and Yammer.

The thing about these types of bundles is that while Microsoft usually does a decent job of making the applications within the bundle feel similar to one another, at the end of the day they are completely separate applications. Right now, for instance, I am writing this column in Microsoft Word. Notice how I said that? I didn't tell you that I am writing my column in Microsoft Office 2016. Instead, I singled out a single application within the Microsoft Office suite. That's the same thing that we have been doing for decades. Microsoft provides us with bundles of software, but we work with individual applications within those bundles.

Now I'm not saying that this approach is wrong. It seems to work well enough, and has for decades. But how much more powerful would the software be if the lines between the individual applications went away? What if there were a single, all powerful application that could meet all of your productivity needs? And what if this all powerful application saved data into a single, universal file format (as opposed do DOCX files, XLSX files, etc.)?

Admittedly, we are nowhere close to reaching that point, but Microsoft has taken an important first step with the creation of groups for Office 365. Groups for Office 365 are an attempt to shift our thinking toward the collaborative experience, and away from specific tools like SharePoint or Yammer.

The concept of focusing on teams and tasks rather than on technology isn't exactly a new concept. The concept is already widely used for a variety of purposes. When someone sends me an e-mail, for example, they neither know nor care what type of device I will view the message on. I might read the message on my PC, or I might read it on my phone. Similarly, I had a video conference with someone yesterday. I was on my PC, and my friend was using a Mac. The point is that platform differences no longer matter. It has become possible to get collaborative tasks done regardless of the platforms that individual users are working from.

Groups for Office 365 are an attempt to bring this same sort of thinking to Office 365. Today, if someone mentions Office 365 collaboration, most people probably think of SharePoint team sites. With groups for Office 365, however, Microsoft has begun to blur the line between SharePoint and Exchange.

The basic idea is simple. There are some things that Exchange does really well. There are other things that SharePoint does really well. So why not build functionality around the best features and capabilities in each platform.

On the surface, groups for Office 365 look a lot like an Exchange distribution group. When a user creates a group, they become an admin for the group and can add members on an as needed basis.  The group itself is assigned an e-mail address, which means that anyone wanting to send a message to all of the group's members needs only to send the message to the group's e-mail address. Outlook online contains a Groups section, and users can click on containers corresponding to the groups that they belong to, in order to access the group's messages.

Groups for Office 365 also make use of the Exchange Server calendar. SharePoint has a calendar of its own, but the Exchange calendar is more full featured, so it makes sense to use it when possible. Group calendars are displayed in Outlook Online in a groups section that appears beneath the user's own calendar.

As previously mentioned, groups for Office 365 are not solely an Exchange Server feature. They are designed to use the best features from both Exchange and SharePoint. I think that most people would probably agree that one of SharePoint's best features is its document libraries. Groups for Office 365 does make use of SharePoint libraries, but not in the way that you might expect.

SharePoint users have long been conditioned to create team sites for groups of users. Indeed, creating an Office 365 group does result in the creation of a site collection, but initially this site collection existed only for the purpose of providing backend resources for the group. As such, the group's document library did not appear within a team site, but rather in OneDrive for Business. Just as Outlook Online contains a Groups section that exposes group communications and calendars, OneDrive for Business also contains a Groups section. Group members can click on a group to access the group's files.

Since the time that Groups for Office 365 were first introduced, Microsoft has been adding additional functionality. Now, each group receives a shared mailbox, a group calendar, a OneNote notebook, a planner, and a SharePoint team site. Microsoft has also indicated that they will be adding additional functionality in the future.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a seven time Microsoft MVP with over two decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written many thousands of articles and written or contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. When He isn't busy writing, Brien Posey enjoys exotic travel, scuba diving, and racing his Cigarette boat. You can visit his personal Web site at: www.brienposey.com.

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