At a recent presentation on Office 365, the presenter started with Microsoft Teams and spent the next half hour or so demonstrating how it, not Outlook, had become the centre of his daily life. He didn’t mention the connection with Office 365 Groups until asked.
Is Microsoft Teams the future of office communications, replacing Outlook?
Teams was introduced to the Office 365 environment in late 2016. (See this video). At the time, it was described as ‘a true chat-based hub for teamwork and give customers the opportunity to create a more open, fluid, and digital environment.’ (https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/teams-overview)
Many early reviews suggested that Teams was Microsoft’s response to Slack, but this comparison is simplistic. Teams has much more functionality than Slack.
How do Teams link into the Office 365 environment?
Teams is not an isolated application in the Office 365 (O365) environment. It has direct links with O365 Groups.
This means that, unless your organisation controls the creation of O365 Groups, every new Team will create a new O365 Group – which in turn creates a Group mailbox and calendar, a SharePoint site, and a Planner.
If your organisation controls Group creation (which is not a bad idea), a Team cannot be created by users using the ‘Create Team’ option.
Instead, whoever controls the creation of Groups (ideally a defined Admin role) can create a Team through the ‘Create Team’ option or, preferably, by linking an existing Group to a new Team. That is, a Team is created (from the Teams interface) with the same name as the O365 Group.
The linkage with O365 Groups is important to understand. Both the Exchange and/or SharePoint Administrators should have a role in the creation of both O365 Groups, SharePoint sites and Teams in environments where this is controlled.
Where Group, Team and SharePoint site creation is not controlled, there is potential for their proliferation. There is some debate as to which is the best option but my own recommendation is to maintain controls, at least as the new Office 365 environment is being rolled out. Otherwise, the SharePoint Admin may have to deal with a plethora of similarly or poorly named SharePoint sites, and the Exchange Admin will also have a job on their hands.
The Outlook paradigm – 30 years of poorly managed records
Almost every office worker for the past 30 years has used Outlook as the primary communication medium, using folders to categorise content. Distribution Lists (DLs) helped to provide a way to communicate (in a single direction) with a known group of users.
The primary way to share a document in the Outlook environment was been to attach it to a new email. Email attachments may be left in Outlook and/or saved to a drive somewhere. Multiple copies probably exist.
Organisations that have deployed SharePoint over the last decade have learned that links in emails to documents are a much more effective way of controlling document versions and reducing copies, but this is a hard change for many users to accept.
The idea that there can be one version of a document in a globally accessible location seems counter-intuitive to users who prefer to squirrel information away in ‘personal’ email or network drive folders.
The rise of social networking and messaging
A range of social network applications, including MySpace, began to appear from the early 2000s (Facebook was open generally from September 2006). Originally browser-based, the general popularity of these applications took off once smartphones included those apps.
It wasn’t long before messaging apps such as Yahoo Messenger started to replace SMS messaging as the default way to communicate with others via phones.
Social networking and messaging apps began to change the way we communicated and connected and began to move personal communications away from email. Instead of emailing each other photos, we could now share them in a single location for all of our friends to view, like and comment.
Email has persisted, however, as the primary ‘formal’ way to communicate.
Probably the main reason for this was its recognition and persistence as a ‘record’ – many document and records management systems integrated with email systems, allowing emails to be captured as records.
Instant messaging, on the other hand, remained largely (and artificially) outside the formally accepted recordkeeping world despite the efforts of records managers to try to capture all this ephemeral content.
Enter Microsoft Teams
Microsoft Teams is an interesting technology from a social change point of view, and one that Microsoft seems to believe will be a game changer for business communications.
To understand Teams, it is important to understand what it’s not. It’s not ‘just’ an alternative to Slack. It’s not ‘just’ a replacement for Skype for Business. It’s not ‘just’ a messaging app. It’s a new way to connect, communicate, and collaborate any device.
- Is accessible on almost any device or browser.
- Includes 1:1 messaging and group messaging.
- Includes a range of emojis and gifs.
- Includes voice and video calling.
- Has its own Office 365 Group (which has its own mailbox in Outlook).
- Has an email address for anyone who still prefers to use email to connect.
- Has its own dedicated (O365 Group) SharePoint site.
- Allows (and in fact encourages) users to share and work on a document at the same time in the Teams interface (rather than attaching it).
- Allows a team to communicate in multiple channels.
- Has cool ‘toast’ notifications.
- Includes a range of connectors to other services.
- Allows a user to see where other people fit into the organisation.
- Saves all the chat content to a hidden folder in the associated Group’s mailbox.
- Allows external (guest) access.
The Teams interface is, in fact, so useful, that some users might find it more useful than Outlook. If you use it for long enough, you may soon find yourself checking Teams instead of Outlook. In fact, Outlook looks a bit dated by comparison.
Is the end near for email?
I don’t think so, at least not for a few years.
Email is a heavily ingrained way of communicating for many people and is still seen as the ‘official’ communication medium for many organisations (having replaced the old paper Memo or Minute).
But, just as Facebook and Instragram (and other applications) replaced email because they were a more effecient and effective way for people to keep in touch (despite all the security issues), Teams – or its natural successor – has the potential to move a lot of communication traffic (and attachments) away from Outlook.
This change has already happened in part. Many (if not most) people – including government officials (allegedly) – already use a range of ‘unofficial’ applications such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Signal and so on, for both personal and professional use. The use of email is, slowly, being eroded in favour of more instant ways to communicate and share information.
Why? Because it’s faster and easier to use and meets the new paradigm of limited attention spans and interest in reading long sentences (TL;DR).
Is Microsoft really the game changer?
Perhaps, but it may not be the only one.
It is a relatively new app, and one that will probably get a lot of traction with lots of marketing by Microsoft, its inclusion in O365 licences, and the very recent ability to connect with external ‘guests’.
Whether users will use its full, Team-based collaboration functionality or remain more a Skype-replacement will remain to be seen. But for now, Outlook is looking like an ‘old’ person’s way to communicate.
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