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How Office 365 Groups will socialize the enterprise

Office 365 Groups came out of Microsoft's Enterprise Social strategy and the company's attempts to integrate a number of features across platforms.

Office 365 Groups is part of the first phase of Microsoft's plan to integrate Enterprise Social features -- including Yammer, Lync, SharePoint and Exchange Online -- across platforms. The first iteration of Groups will be included in Exchange Online and OneDrive for Business.

Office 365 Groups are different than security groups or distribution groups because shared resources are provisioned and maintained, rather than being just a list of users. The first iteration of Office 365 Group is tied to a mailbox with a social feed and calendar, rather than a traditional inbox, and includes a shared group area of OneDrive for Business.

As with other social platforms, users control Groups management, which is self-service. We'll take a closer look at the new feature and help you understand where it can be useful.

Create Office 365 Groups

Outlook Web App (OWA) users create and manage groups. A new Groups section appears in tenants alongside the Folder and People sections. The process for creating and finding groups is similar to Yammer. Look for a relevant group in the list or create one appropriate to your needs (Figure 1).

Create Office 365 Group
Figure 1. The process to create Groups is similar to the process in Yammer.

In this example of Office 365 tenant, I'll create my first group. From a user perspective, the technology under the hood isn't important; the fields the user fills in are similar to most social networks. But from an administrator's perspective, it's worth understanding how the fields relate. The Group ID relates to the alias used, which will be combined with the tenant's default domain to provide an email address. The Name maps to the object's display name.

We can add members after creating the Group. This is like assigning permissions to a shared mailbox. The big exception is that people can join and leave by themselves if the Group's creator allows it.

There are also options to replicate a distribution group's style functionality, which enable people to email the group from outside the organization and switch on email subscription for threads (Figure 2).

Distribution group style
Figure 2. There are options to replicate a distribution group's style functionality.

Explore Office 365 Groups functionality

Once we've created our first group, we're offered the following functionality:

  • Conversation feeds
  • Document library
  • Shared calendar

The conversation feed view is the default setting. Because this is only the first release of Office 365 Groups, it's hard to imagine what this will look like if Yammer groups are imported. Conversation feeds don't have the same social functionality as Yammer, such as the ability to "Like" posts, create Polls or "Praise" people.

The Groups' calendar function is effectively a shared calendar. Users can switch between common Groups features when changing views; we moved to the calendar view in OWA. In Outlook itself, the Group is simply exposed as a shared calendar (Figure 3).

Office 365 Groups calendar
Figure 3. The calendar functionality is essentially a shared calendar.

File functionality is the only area of Groups where users leave OWA. Files are stored under OneDrive for Business and are shown in the same way a user's OneDrive will appear. Under the hood, it looks like a SharePoint site is created, but this creation is hidden to present a less-complicated interface (Figure 4).

Office 365 Groups interface
Figure 4. There are some changes here to present a simpler interface for users.

Examine Office 365 Groups as an administrator

Each group is tied to a mailbox rather than a distribution group, and a group has a slightly different construction than what's seen in Exchange.

If we examine a group in the Office 365 Portal, it's shown alongside current security and distribution groups within our Office 365 setup. We have the ability to change settings and manage user membership (Figure 5).

Change settings in Office 365 Groups
Figure 5. Office 365 Groups have a different construct to what you see elsewhere in Exchange.

When the Group is examined via Exchange Online PowerShell, similarities between a normal group and Office 365 Groups end. A mailbox represents the Group we've shown in Figure 6. However, permissions for relevant folders such as the inbox (where the conversation feed is stored) and the calendar show a new logical representation of users -- Owner and Member.

Owner and Member logical representations
Figure 6. You'll see new logical representations in some folder permissions.

From a technical perspective, this shows that Groups might look familiar when first examined. But, Groups uses new technology that isn't yet possible within on-premises Exchange.

Should I use site mailboxes, Yammer or Groups?

Where should admins use Groups within their organizations? Site mailboxes share a lot of similarities with Office 365 Groups. A site mailbox is user-provisioned via SharePoint and tied to a specific set of documents. It provides its own calendar and allows people collaborating on a project to share information, much like Groups does. The major difference is that site mailboxes are, as the name suggests, an add-on to an existing SharePoint site that might contain all sorts of site apps. If a team works closely using a particular SharePoint site, a site mailbox may make more sense for your organization rather than adding on a Group and a new set of files.

Yammer groups are similar to Office 365, and over time, we might expect that as Yammer becomes more integrated with Microsoft. Currently Yammer provides a full-fledged social platform and, unlike Office 365 Groups, offers an experience similar to a corporate Facebook. You can use Office 365 Groups with the OWA mobile device app, but it's nowhere near as good as mobile Yammer apps. You also can't create external networks using Groups.

If you use Yammer internally, Groups is a tool to watch. If your organization isn't using either of the above and doesn't need a full-fledged social network experience, Office 365 Groups may make more sense than Yammer because it's a great alternative to public folders and distribution groups.

About the author:
Steve Goodman is an Exchange MVP and works as a technical architect for one of the U.K.'s leading Microsoft Gold partners. Goodman has worked extensively with Microsoft Exchange since version 5.5 and with Office 365 since its origins in Exchange Labs and Live@EDU.

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