Groups versus Teams: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Teams Splash

Arguing About Teams

I am bemused by those who want to compare Office 365 Groups and Teams in a sort of technology deathmatch to decide which application is better. Perhaps this always happens when new applications appear. People are naturally curious and want to know whether they should embrace new technology if it is much better than what they use today. In this case, Teams are not better than Groups. Rather, Teams are just different to Groups.

The Same Root

Sometimes I think Microsoft struggles to position Office 365 Groups. To me, there are two major elements to consider. First, the identity service that defines groups and manages their membership. Figure 1 is the best pictorial representation I have seen from Microsoft to explain the use of Groups as a membership service.

Groups as a Service
Figure 1: Groups as a membership service (image credit: Microsoft)

Then we have the original Office 365 Groups application, now referred to as Outlook Groups because Outlook clients store conversations in Exchange mailboxes

Teams uses the same identity service. A team is a group and team membership is group membership. Yammer groups also use the identity service and a Yammer group is a group and its membership is the group membership. Stream does the same if used inside Office 365. The point here is that Teams and Groups share the same foundation. They also share many of the same resources, like a SharePoint team site, shared notebook, shared calendar, and plans. In reality, the differences are conversation storage and the target audience for the two applications.

Serving Different Audiences

Outlook Groups serve the huge audience that Microsoft has moved from on-premises Exchange to Office 365. The last data given by Microsoft are that roughly 10% of the current Office 365 base actively uses Outlook Groups. To put that figure in perspective, it is roughly twice the entire Yammer installed base (based on anecdotal evidence).

Given that many Exchange on-premises seats have not yet moved to Office 365, it follows that Outlook Groups has a lot of room to grow, even if the application is only ever used by those who base their working life around Outlook. As an application, Outlook has always been relatively slow to change (which is why you see new features appear in OWA a long time before Outlook adopts them). Outlook does a reasonable job of supporting Groups.

Teams targets a new audience. People who might not have ever used Outlook or who have grown up in a world where “high-velocity chats” conducted through Facebook, Slack, WhatsApp, or other similar applications is the norm. It might be possible to convert these people to view Outlook as the fulcrum of their working life. Instead, Microsoft offers Teams, an application full of cheery icons that just does not look like work and is a modern take on the toolset needed by office workers today. Recall that this is what Microsoft set out to deliver with Outlook 20 years ago. In some ways, Teams are a take on what Outlook might be if you set out to design it from scratch today’s Outlook.

To me, Outlook Groups help to keep the installed base happy while Teams is there for new audiences and for people who want a change – and who might have looked to non-Microsoft sources like Slack for that change. Although many Office 365 plans include Teams, keeping everyone inside Office 365 gives Microsoft the opportunity to generate new revenues by upselling to better (more expensive) plans, add-ons, or to use the premium version of Azure Active Directory. Teams also gives another reason for people to move from on-premises servers to Office 365 because Microsoft will never make Teams available on-premises.

Using the Office 365 Fabric

But what is important is that while the two audiences address different audiences, they use the same Office 365 fabric. Exchange gives a mailbox to each team so that the team has a shared calendar and somewhere to record conversations for compliance reasons. SharePoint and OneDrive for Business deliver the Files capability for team and personal storage. Skype delivers video conferencing, and so on.

The To-Do List for Teams

In some ways, comparing Teams and Outlook Groups is unfair. Although the application has had a great start and shows innovation and extendibility in an admirable sense, Teams are new and need more development in different areas before satisfying the needs of many enterprises. External access is the most obvious deficiency (coming soon). Better management, including support for PowerShell, is another.

In addition, I would like to see better support for Office 365 data governance in terms of more granular auditing and support for retention, DLP, and supervision policies. Building an application that ticks all the boxes takes time and to be fair to Teams, it took Microsoft over two years to deliver some of this functionality for Outlook Groups. Indeed, Microsoft has still to deliver some of the commitments made at the Ignite 2016 like the naming and expiration policies for groups.

Email Still Important

I also think Teams needs to have much better connectivity with email. Being able to accept email contributions to conversations is a small step forward. Being able to communicate with the world via SMTP-based email from Teams is quite a different matter. Hopefully, Microsoft will bring this capability to Teams and use the email infrastructure available within Office 365 to protect Teams from malware, use Exchange transport rules, and so on.

A Matter of Choice

Arguing about technology can be enjoyable, especially over a cool drink. In this case, Teams and Groups are two sides of the same coin. Use both in your tenant to serve the needs of different workgroups, safe in the knowledge that both leverage a common fabric that improves all the time. Choice is wonderful!

Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.

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