You're ready to collaborate... but how?

Posted by Marc Anderson

Sometimes it seems like we’re seeing an onslaught of changes in our SharePoint worlds. That means that sometimes I envy my clients who are still on SharePoint 2007 or 2010. They may not have the latest or greatest features, but at least they know what they have, and it’s predictable.

We continue to see big changes coming to Office365, and the pace isn’t going to slow down. It may even increase.

One of the things that many people seem to be struggling with (and those of us who advise people are struggling with too) is when to use what. We now have a seeming plethora of different mechanisms to use for groups of people (n > 1) to collaborate on Office 365, some of which may soon be coming to SharePoint 2016. Each of them originally came from a different team inside Microsoft, and each has its strengths or weaknesses.

Here are some of the options, along with some background and some plusses and minuses.

Team Sites
Venerable Team Sites have been the collaboration workhorses in SharePoint for years. A Team Site is actually just a pre-existing Site Template that has a document library, a calendar, an announcements list, etc. There’s been a little variation over the years, but not much.

Team Sites were probably never meant to be a “thing” in and of themselves. Almost every team worth its salt begins adjusting the capabilities of the Team Site they get by instantiating the template right away.

Of course in many organization, the ability to make changes to a Team Site is locked down. That’s both one of their strengths (control) and weaknesses (control). They are also long in the tooth and don’t feel all that “modern.”

Hmm, Yammer. Is it the social fabric of our lives or an also-ran? (See the great recent post, “Has Yammer played out its role?” from Wictor Wilén for some thoughts on Yammer’s longevity.) Yammer has a lot of the same mechanisms as Team Sites: files, discussions, groups, teams, and so on.

The Yammer folks coined the Enterprise Social Network (ESN) moniker and really started the category in many ways. It’s been unclear for quite a while now where Microsoft is going with Yammer, and most of its capabilities also exist somewhere else in the stack. Add to that the fact that there is zero chance of Yammer being available on premises, and it becomes a non-starter for many of you.

Community Sites
Remember these? Well, I’ll forgive you if you don’t. These sites could have been the next great thing, but I think Yammer got in the way here. Enough said.

“SharePoint Social”
It’s worth mentioning SharePoint Social in this list because if you’re on premises with SharePoint 2010 or 2013, you have it. Microsoft basically abandoned it when the company bought Yammer and will not do any more development on it. That said, this flavor of the ESN idea is still there for many of you, and could be a part of your collaborative fabric if you choose. Just don’t expect any improvements.

This is the most recent entrant in the race, and quite a few people are betting on it as the eventual winner. Groups came out of the Exchange team, so it maintains tight ties to the e-mail concept. The folks I’ve talked to who have gone deep enough on Groups still don’t think that they are ready for the enterprise yet.

The main downside to Groups to date seems to be a lack of control. Groups was one of the first big capabilities released using Minimal Viable Product (another “MVP”), and it showed. One man’s “viable” is another woman’s laughingstock, so your mileage may vary.

Groups are another place where we see a lot of the same old common components: files, discussions, etc., but better! We certainly have a “shiny penny” problem here, but as these tools have been coming out, some organizations have been moving their work styles forward as well. Groups may be out in front of these trends the most right now.

“Next-Gen” Portals
Could these be the Next Big Thing in collaboration? Just because the word “Portal” is there, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be some collaborative capabilities. To me, almost all content should be collaborative on some level today. Sure, it doesn’t make sense to wrap a social context around a vacation policy, but... Oh, wait a minute, it actually does!

Delve Boards
If you think a little bit, Delve Boards can also be a collaboration mechanism. As free-forming groups of us “pin” things to Boards, we’re sort of creating a loose community like we could manage with Community Sites. Since we can share these “pins” and Board contents, isn’t that a form of collaboration? While Boards may not give us much formalization, isn’t that what much collaboration is all about: a lack of formal structure?

One last question
What’s missing in all of this is the answer to the “What should I use and when?” question. In talking to several other SharePoint and Office 365 MVPs recently, I know that we all feel that we should have better “guidance” on this. It could come from Microsoft, but it also could come from the community.

In the old days, when our attention spans were longer, we often would come up with decision trees for things like this. “If you need options A, B and ZZ, then use Capability 17.” We would even do up fancy Visio-like diagrams to help people through the thinking.

Kanwal Khipple and Richard Harbridge have done a great job on this in their white paper, “When To Use What In Office 365.” It’s 60 pages packed with advice. But the problem with any publication is that it will be out of data as soon as we put it out there! I’m not sure how often Kanwal and Richard update their opus, but I’m sure they are having as much trouble keeping up as the rest of us.

Another option is to hire a consultant to advise you about new developments as things move forward. This can be expensive, of course, but you get what you pay for. Since staying on top of all of this takes a lot of focus, you can essentially buy that focus if you can afford it.

The SharePoint community needs to keep thinking these things through, understanding that any conclusions we reach will be out of date in no time. One thing for sure is that there is absolutely no “one size fits all” answer to any of this. Every organization’s culture and priorities are different enough from any other’s that you can’t just read a “Use Groups!” post somewhere and be sure it’s the right answer for you. Take a look at all of these options and understand that the right answers probably will be some combination of these (and maybe other) tools. The only constant is change!

Topics: Yammer, SharePoint 2016, Team Sites, collaboration

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