It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

The ever-valuable Christian Buckley (@buckleyplanet) wrote an article in July that I’ve been meaning to respond to. With my vacations now finished, here it finally is…

The conversations arising from the release of Office 365 Groups have been spirited: what’s necessary for collaboration? what makes an experience “social”? And what’s the tail vs. the dog in this hot mess of churning innovation in the productivity space? One of the hottest topics has been “what’s happening with Yammer groups?” and/or “when should we recommend one over the other?”

As with many things related to Yammer, it appears from my vantage point that much of the confusion comes from an accident of history. The concept of an immersive collaboration space, where conversations and documents develop side by side in a more seamless flow, has risen and faded many times even in Microsoft history (who remembers Groove? No, not the music service…).

Microsoft Groove (aka SharePoint Workspace)

Yammer’s attempt at this was compelling because of its self-organizing nature and how easy it is for others to discover teams, get up to speed, and contribute. Obviously, a foundational piece was a group identity, and so the concept was born to create a new kind of group object in Azure AD that any of the Office collaboration experiences could use to stitch together new experiences like Yammer had done (and Groove and others before it), but this time in the rapidly evolving cloud of Office 365.

Now comes the accident of history… Yammer’s been very busy doing core foundational work to fully integrate with O365's authentication and Office Online, not to mention some catching up on the compliance front. While they were doing that, the Outlook team could start innovating on the Groups *service*, and so Outlook Groups came to market first.

Unfortunately, the messaging for the foundational O365 Groups *service* came out at the same time as its inaugural experience: Outlook Groups. This nuance of service vs. experience got lost, and everyone assumed the new Outlook experience was O365 Groups… which led to the questions about the future of Yammer groups, and to Yammer clearing it up after Ignite.

Office 365 Groups is a service, not an experience

The announcement made Tuesday (22.9.2014) is much clearer.

“The first apps to take advantage of the Office 365 Groups service include Outlook, OneDrive for Business, OneNote, Skype for Business, Power BI and Dynamics CRM. Yammer, Delve and Planner will also soon take advantage of this service.”

As the new features appear in other experiences, it will become even more obvious how we initially had it wrong. For example, you can now use the same Groups created through Outlook to share a Power BI dashboard. Or, you could find yourself added to a Group in Outlook because your account manager added you to a group generated from a new CRM opportunity.

When Yammer is finally integrated with the Groups service, I’d expect to see things like: one-click from a Yammer group to a calendar invite / Skype call that includes everyone in the group, Docs in a group managed just like a OneDrive folder, Delve-driven suggestions for related files, groups, meetings, etc.

In Christian’s post, he offers a way to answer the “which group when” question:

“Groups are more or less a filter or a view of your data, while Yammer is a community-building tool and a place where content is created (conversations).”

The trouble with this distinction for me is that the reason I fell in love with Yammer is the filtered / contextual experience it gave me, and I found it worked great for small-team collaboration. Click on a group, and you get all the conversations and files about a team or project. I know lots of people see Yammer as a community tool, and it is very good at that. But it’s even better at getting a small team focused on their work together and moving conversations and decisions forward faster.

The distinction between Yammer and Outlook Groups that works better for me is about style or culture. Some teams that have a smaller appetite for change will get benefit from an enhanced email-based collaboration experience. Other teams that are motivated to realize the benefits of a cultural shift toward truly open collaboration will benefit from an increasingly integrated Yammer experience.* There are still other teams that live in Skype, and I expect that they also will eventually have a richer set of collaboration options.

This brings me to my analogy for the day: I see the collaboration choices Microsoft gives us like vastly different houses in a neighborhood with “character.” Each house is uniquely suited to the family within. Some prefer rustic, some modern, others traditional styles. Some floor plans are more open than others. Each have their charm. All have doors, windows, and toilets. And all of them plug into the same utilities: electric, water, sewer.

The Office 365 Groups service is a utility, not a house. Outlook Groups, Yammer Groups, and more to come are the houses built on the street. Conversations, doc sharing, presence, and meetings are the features of the house that become possible — and more consistent from house to house — by building on the same utilities.

So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Christian concludes that

“…while Office 365 Groups will not replace Yammer functionality, the reality is that Groups will likely displace Yammer.”

Given the road I see ahead, I would say instead, “The Office 365 Groups service will enhance the Yammer experience, and both email-based and feed-based collaboration will continue to evolve to meet the needs of different kinds of teams and organizations.”

Christian ends his next paragraph with

“For some organizations, Yammer will fit their culture and requirements, while others will find a better match using the Groups capability.”

I think this is more on target than the previous statement. Microsoft has literally billions of customers. The chance that Microsoft could ever build ONE collaboration experience that suits all types of teams, company cultures, and working styles is close to zero. Having multiple experiences drawing on the same infrastructure is the best path to having a solution somewhere in the Microsoft ecosystem that meets your team’s needs and culture.

*This paragraph reveals my bias toward the Yammer culture. Sticking with an Outlook Group gives you many of the benefits of email (offline, faster search, easier copy/paste…), but comes with a cost in slower updates to the experience. Some people see the rapid updates to Yammer as a “cost” of adopting it, where I only see it as upside. That’s what I mean by an “appetite for change.” For me, the benefits of openness and more organized and fluid conversations far outweighs the price of being experimented on.