Microsoft’s evolving Groups feature aims to improve collaboration, likely at the expense of similar Office 365 options.

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Microsoft is fast shifting its focus to the cloud, and one of the chief areas where business organizations can benefit from this change will be in better collaboration among and across workgroups. However, that depends on Microsoft providing the right mix of tools, as well enough clarity for users and admins to know how best to make use of them.

You see, the big challenge facing Office 365 admins and users is the cacophony of collaboration options at our disposal. We might have distribution lists in Outlook, a Lync buddy list, Yammer groups, and so on. Add in team sites, site mailboxes, public folders, and so forth, and you can see that the Office 365 communication and collaboration layer is getting crowded, and users are confused as to which tool to reach for when trying to work with one another. Enter Groups, a new feature announced at the end of September as a means of addressing the fact that we often have almost too many ways to collaborate.

The Groups feature, which I came across in the wild this week while accessing Office 365 through Outlook Web App on my laptop at the Microsoft MVP Summit at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters, is meant to provide a shared workspace with a focus (for now) on Exchange and SharePoint Online users. Look down at the bottom-left corner of OWA and you’ll see this new feature. With Groups, teams can have their own mailbox viewable to all members. There will be a group calendar, and file sharing will be handled by OneDrive for Business to allow for document collaboration.

You may be thinking this only adds to the collaboration confusion. It does, for now. Savvy admins may already see where this is heading: The advent of Groups hints at the deprecation of other collaboration features like team sites and site mailboxes. Though Microsoft hasn’t made any announcements to indicate that these features are being eliminated, the push is obviously toward this new Groups feature over several other options.

The cool thing about Groups is that it shows the evolution of collaboration features for users within Office 365. The idea is, through the cloud, users are better positioned to self-organize and self-manage collaborative groups. In some ways, this evolution and emphasis on user empowerment sounds fantastic to the ears of admins. But it also raises concerns about how to control the feature or to turn it off if needed.
With Groups, admins still have some control. They can disable group creation through a remote PowerShell connection; simply update the mailbox policy to remove the feature. Plus, you can apply policies to individual users, thereby controlling which employees can create new groups and which cannot. There’s also a Groups dashboard option in the Office 365 Dashboard that will allow admins to view, create, and delete groups, and add/remove group administrators or members.

I think the addition of Groups will eventually be a fine development, but Microsoft would best serve users and admins if it pools all the other collaboration tools (such Lync, Yammer, and so on) so that we have a simpler set of choices for users to make when collaborating. Until then, collaborating on Office 365 remains a free-for-all.