Dear Microsoft: I’m Confused. Can You Help Me Collaborate Well?

7 minute read

Yup, I’ll admit it: I’m confused.

The launch of Microsoft Teams last week is what’s done it. First of all, from everything I’ve seen of the new tool, it’s really cool. I had some trouble getting my head around how to get it up and running in our Sympraxis Office 365 tenant, but now Julie (@jfj1997) and I are taking it for a spin and we like it.

Microsoft Teams

What’s confusing to me is where Microsoft Teams fits into the spectrum of similar offerings, which all look pretty much the same to me on many levels. We have Yammer, Group Conversations, Microsoft Teams, email, Team Site Discussions, and the old SharePoint newsfeed. Now, I’ll allow that the last two are pretty much obsolete, but they are still in the UIs and people see them. This is a lot of choices.

Every time Microsoft comes out with a new “social” tool set, the rhetoric around its positioning tends to be “Hey, we think you like choices, and here’s another choice for you!” It’s absolutely true that everyone works differently, but there are patterns in those different ways of working. While we all may be special flowers (see my comments about millennials below), but we aren’t snowflakes; there is a lot of similarity in the types of things we are trying to solve in our collaborations.

I wish I could find the old slides we used to use when I worked in Renaissance Solutions back in the late 1990s, but I think they have been lost to the electrons of time. When we talked about the different communications mechanisms that we available for people to use for good knowledge management, we listed out 6-8 methods. We talked about them being part of a portfolio of options, each of which had specific set of good use cases. (Some of the terminology has changed, but the ideas haven’t changed all that much.)

For instance, you shouldn’t fire someone over email because it’s an emotional event; that deserves and in-person meeting (generally one-on-one). You also shouldn’t call an all hands company meeting if you’re just reviewing a task checklist if an electronic sharing mechanism works just as well. And so on. These common sense rules are broken all the time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make simple senss. It’s often simply that no one has provided enough guidance on how to think about things.

One of the big issues I see in our overly connected world these days is misuse of the various options we have at hand. One example is Microsoft support calling me on the phone when I’ve created a support ticket via the Web; generally we should stick to one modality and not shift mid-stream. Like it or not, the initiator gets to choose, and we should only switch by mutual agreement. (“Would you mind if I emailed you some more details?” in a conversation, for instance.) Sometimes my wife and I have this problem, too. We might start a conversation in a text, it jumps over to email, and then becomes a note on the counter. That jumping between methods waters down the interaction and makes it far more confusing. One of the methods was probably the right one, but we’ve subverted that.

What has me confused about Microsoft’s overlapping offerings in the communication spectrum is that they don’t come with guidance about which is good when or for what type of organizations. Instead we see a lot of talk about choice being good. Choice seems good, but when you get right down to it, open choice leads to a certain amount of chaos. Many people I talk to would like some sort of help understanding what Microsoft is thinking, at least, but Microsoft seems unwilling to do this.

When Microsoft is working on the development of a new tool like Microsoft Teams or adding enhancements to an older tool set like Yammer, they must have use cases in mind. (I truly hope this is the case, and I believe it has to be!) But those use cases don’t really make it out to us in the form of helpful portfolio management strategies.

One standard Microsoft answer to things like this is that it’s a “partner opportunity”. That would be an excellent answer if every partner understood how to do this type of positioning, but many don’t. Many partners are technical partners and focus far more on implementing the hardware and software (nay, services). This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the way it works.

As a consultant who has done a lot of knowledge management work and collaboration and strategy work after that, I suppose I could look at this as an excellent opportunity for me to go out and make a lot of money advising clients about how to manage all of these options. That might be good for me (and hopefully for my clients), but it doesn’t help the ecosystem all that much.

Another chestnut that we hear a lot is “Well, millennial want something different, so…” This is a weird one to me. Sure, younger people may be different, but remember we’re all special flowers, right? People entering the workplace don’t know how to do things in the workplace yet. Simply catering to them – it certainly didn’t happen back when I started working – will just water down effective work styles developed over years. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of work methods are just plain dumb and should be questions, but mindfully and not just because the kids don’t like them.

When I look at the graph below from Avanade, I see some really interesting information. But I also see that many people I know in my generation (I’m a Baby Boomer!)  must be doing things wrong; we don’t act like the stats. I also know millennials who don’t act like millennials. And my son isn’t just like his Gen Z group, either. When I interact with any of these groups, I need to adapt my methods based on what will work at the time, not just what *I* like.

Statistics like this are absolutely useful, but you need to understand your own organization to know what will work. If it’s an organization with lots of closed offices and hierarchy, it’s different from one with an open office plan and a lot of cross-functional work. Age usually has little impact on those constructs. So when you think about what will work for your organization, wouldn’t it be great to have some sort of framework from which to make decisions? A sort of “portfolio management” approach?

I’m reminded of the great work Sadie Van Buren (@sadalit) did a few years ago on her SharePoint Maturity Model. It gave people some very clear ways to think about where they were on the spectrum of success with the platform. The model is a little dusty at this point, but it still makes a lot of sense and can help drive decision-making. (If you check it out and think it’s still useful, please let Sadie or me know. I think it needs a renaissance for Office 365!)

So how can Microsoft un-confuse me, and by extension many of you? Well, I think they need to put their internal politics aside and draw some lines in the sand. For example, regardless how you feel about it, Yammer is good for interactions that require external users because many of the other options don’t provide that capability. A simple statement like that can make some decisions pretty simple: You need external users; you need Yammer. QED. But you rarely see Microsoft making such a clear statement.

Here’s hoping that the smart people in Redmond get on this soon. As the options keep piling up on us, it’s only getting harder to choose. If I were a betting man, I’d pick some winners and loser in this game, too. Knowing what makes sense for specific use cases would reduce risk for organizations who need to make choices and stick with them. Change in most organizations is hard – and expensive. Making good decisions based on good guidance up front makes those changes far more palatable.

nb: I”m publishing this from the plane on the way to Microsoft MVP Summit. It’s best to get this off my chest before I get all jazzed up this week! Maybe I’ll be able to convince some people about this stuff while I’m there.




  1. As a customer you have to check your use cases against the different features and tools. Of course it will be a best fit or a compromise in the most cases. But as I see it, it’s compromises in all choices, not only in terms of which collaboration/communication tool you choose. And that’s something no marketing department will tell you, that their product is somehow only a compromise in your given situation.

    As O365 is used by customers from two up to hundreds of thousands of users in probably all industries that are out there, I don’t see Microsoft delivering the one guide to rule them all.

  2. Maybe Cloud software has reached the status of a “Convenience Good”. It is no longer about Good Software but about who uses it. We oldies have seen it happen with hardware multiple times. Market potential trumps quality..and functionality
    In this (product)phase it is about getting A product to Market (fast). IKEA is the best example of the past 40 years.
    Microsoft had to counter Slack (and for whatever reason they didn’t buy Slack)
    Microsoft IS just like IKEA, they develop products and try to sell, sell, sell… the product is just a means, it is not (was it ever?) a goal. And that allows for a different variety of products.. just like IKEA sells 5 different frying pans.
    Maybe the question: ► What is the best team-tool?
    Can only be answered with: ► What color do you want?

    PS. you’re in my home town next week, I will prepare some challenging questions ;-)

  3. Amen.
    Same as you I’m a friend of options. Everybody works differently, let’s have some options.

    What I don’t like is that I’m missing the grand strategy of everything social at Microsoft. SharePoint 2013 was a good beginning; Yammer is bought; SharePoint Social “deprecated”; Yammer isn’t updated in ages. Skype for Business somewhere got persistent chat / groups.

    Here comes Ignite 2016 and everything seems better. Groups gained traction and is the new “thing” to collaborate. Yammer is being integrated more and more into O365/Groups. But the split is happening again: Groups is an Exchange feature, hence the communication happens via E-Mail. Now you can have Yammer-Conversation Groups or E-Mail based. In secret the Skype team has been working on Skype Spaces. Oh yeah, you can have conversations in Visual Studio Team Services as well…
    And along comes Microsoft Teams née Skype Spaces with its own social experience.

    Again: I pretty much like **alll** of the above tools. I personally can see the value of each and every tool, but convincing customers and explaining the plethora of tools is a pain.
    Just a couple of years ago people grasped the value of Social Collaboration and maybe did their first baby steps with SharePoint. Now having to decide whether I want to have a Yammer based group or an Exchange based group? Why should I even create a group if a Team is the new cool thing? Heck Conversations in teams are a lot more lively with all the connectors and graphical features. Oh, and Teams are “based on Groups” (whatever that means in marketing speak). I’m assuming they get a link from Groups just like Planner gets – but how is that integration? Why should anyone have a conversation in the group as well as in “the team”…

    I love choices, but I love a solid strategy on how to present these choices in a consistent manner. I like for example how Groups is this new overarching theme. This is something people understand: I can have a group for my “Marketing team”. A group has a planner. A group has files. A group has a conversation.. and a group has a… team? Yeah… that is where it breaks apart for me.

  4. Thanks Marc and couldn’t agree more.
    My previous boss many years ago always described Collaboration is a quick way to chaos…and this still holds true today with all the tools at our disposal. What’s really interesting here is that “Microsoft Teams” is developed by the Office Team, which is where SharePoint came from, so whilst the technologies have evolved but the team collaboration challenges still remain.

    Thinking about organisations who are using SharePoint On-Premise the gap has widened for them to reach the modern collaboration cloud!

  5. I share your concerns for adding another tool to the mix. It’s already too challenging for most clients to understand and decide how to communicate — your wife and your conversations are a great example. Even with folks who know the value of the right communication medium we choose the wrong one or jump between mediums. (Yes, this sounded so familiar.)

    I have two things to share.

    First, choice isn’t (necessarily) a good thing. For those who don’t believe me, check out The Paradox of Choice ( More choices raises anxiety and reduces forward action. It’s like removing all the oil from an engine — it’s not a good thing.

    Second, everyone wants to believe that millennials are different than “us” (however you define yourself as us.) I believe that in reality it’s just age appropriate behavior that we’ve blocked out of our consciousness. See my review of Americas Generations ( for more on how we’re confusing age based behavior and thinking with generations. That isn’t to say that millennials never work differently than us — they’re much more comfortable with a small screen and fighting to type than we are. However, the news that they’re different is greatly overplayed.

  6. Yammer will have no use what so ever once MS release the external users for Groups. I like Teams but not everyone will use it, so the conversations might still occur in S4B or Groups. Teams is like a hyrbid of S4B and Groups which means its going to cause confusion and somewhere along the line someone has to say, use this or that. Some more governance issues I fear.

  7. This summarizes the muddled thoughts in my head perfectly. IMO, “choice” is becoming a marketing crutch for justifying competing workloads. I think this is wreaking havoc on non-IT business users. I have a hard enough time tracking and using all of this stuff and I am so keyed into it, I have no idea how to relay it all to our business users.

    Like others mentioned, the vision needs to be simplified. I’d like to see it move to a “turn on what you need” model. All the puzzle pieces are there.

    Create your Group/Team by selecting from the below options:
    – Would you like a dedicated document library: Yes/No
    – Would you like a full SharePoint site: Yes/No
    – Would you like a shared calendar: Yes/No
    – Would you like an email address: Yes/No
    – Would you like a persistent team chat area: Yes/No
    – Would you like a Planner: Yes/No
    – Would you like a Notebook: Yes/No
    – Would you like to leverage external users: Yes/No

    Give the option to access from mobile web, desktop application, outlook, or mobile app.

    Then give the option to turn on and turn off as needed. Stealing someone else’s word, this is creating so much technical debris in our O365 environment, especially when it is hard enough to put basic governance to make sure there isnt crap everywhere and it can be somewhat managed.

    Also, fully replace Yammer with Teams at this point. The persistent chat is what Yammer basically is. So a large Yammer group could just be a Team with nothing else turned on but persistent team chat.

    Just my 2 cents…


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