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Are Microsoft collaboration tools starting to join forces?

Microsoft's cross-suite strategy, or lack thereof, for Office 365 collaboration tools has felt disjointed. But after the vendor's recent moves, users should see more cohesion.

A year ago Microsoft collaboration tools in Office 365 had no real discernable pattern, and they didn't quite work together. The collaboration suite appeared to be somewhat muddled.

Outside the strong base of Exchange Online, the additional services and features seem to grow with an "everything but the kitchen sink" feel but without much thought on how these different pieces should work together. The pattern of releases into the Office 365 universe has been feature-focused and not cohesive-focused.

For example, Microsoft released a threat protection feature that provides safe attachments and links for Exchange Online. But that same feature doesn't cross-pollinate to Yammer or Skype for Business, where a document or link might be posted. At the same time, new Microsoft collaboration tools -- like Office 365 Video, Delve and Sway -- continue to grow the suite lineup but do nothing, in some cases, to glue them together.

Microsoft is aware that this lack of cross-suite cooperation prompts end users to reach for third-party shadow IT tools. But we're starting to see a strategy emerge among Microsoft collaboration tools.

Features, services coming together incrementally

This past year Microsoft released Office 2016, which relies heavily on OneDrive for Business for document storage and sharing options. (Note: Microsoft calls OneDrive your "My Documents" folder in the cloud). And Microsoft recently unveiled greater file management and sharing options through OneDrive for Business and SharePoint Online.

Microsoft is no longer tossing new services at a wall to see what sticks. The focus now is to get the pieces to play nicely together.

Because OneDrive is for personal file storage, management and sharing, and SharePoint is for file distribution toward a wider audience, Microsoft has added the ability to copy -- and, soon, move -- a file from OneDrive to a SharePoint document library. These features are not live yet, but are expected to go live this year.

Office 365 Groups is a cross-suite service among Outlook, OneDrive for Business, OneNote, Skype for Business, Power BI and Dynamics CRM -- with Yammer, Delve and Planner expected to join soon. Groups works through a single-team identity managed in the Azure Active Directory.

The goal is for colleagues to communicate and collaborate easily, going beyond old-school distribution groups. Once people are added to a group, they gain access to all group assets -- past and present. After its launch, Groups got a variety of needed features, including eDiscovery and auditing.

Seeking end-user stickiness

Having features that stretch from one service to another, as opposed to only being possible in one service like Exchange Online, suggests Microsoft collaboration tools are starting to coalesce, or at least that there's a strategy afoot.

Other cooperation points among services have gone live this year -- and not just for internal communication. Late last month, Microsoft introduced an external groups feature in Yammer that lets users include people outside their company into a Yammer group.

Microsoft is no longer just tossing new features and services against a wall to see what sticks -- at least, it seems like those days are over. The focus now is to get all these pieces playing nicely together, allowing end users to take advantage of Microsoft collaboration tools across the Office 365 suite. We're not there yet, but we're seeing a trend in that direction that should continue to evolve in the year ahead.

Microsoft ought to meld its collaboration tools, because the sooner enterprises see the full capabilities of Office 365, the sooner they'll fully adopt it, creating an end-user stickiness that Microsoft certainly wants and needs.

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