Dear Microsoft: In Office 365, Groups are Groups are Groups – Unless They Aren’t

One of the problems with using common English words for things like “groups” or “teams” is that we end up trying to figure out the difference between things with very common names. When Sue Hanley (@susanhanley) and I were building our session Lions and Tigers and Teams, Oh My! – Sorting through the options to connect and collaborate in Office 365 for SPTechCon Austin recently, I realized just how confusing this could be – yet again.

The Problem

On the SharePoint home UI, when I want to create a “group”, I am told I will “Get a team site connected to Office 365 Groups”. So based on that one sentence, I might quite reasonably assume I’m creating a “Team” and a “Group” – which it so happens I am – sort of.

In the Groups UI in the Admin Center, we see these options:

  • Office 365 Group
  • Distribution list
  • Mail-enabled security group
  • Security group

In the Exchange admin center when we start to create a “group”, we’re given these choices:

  • Office 365 Group
  • Distribution group
  • Security group
  • Dynamic distribution group

But don’t fret. When you go to create a “group” in the Azure AD UI, you can create a “group” with Membership type of:

  • Assigned
  • Dynamic Device
  • Dynamic user

We can also check a box to “

Selecting ‘Yes’ will turn on Office 365 features for this group

I can even try to add the “group” – it’s not clear which type of “group” I’ve actually created – to the membership of another “group”. “Group Type” seems to be one of the following:

  • Distribution
  • Security
  • Office
  • Mail enabled security

When I create a Team in Microsoft Teams, there’s not even a clue that I’m also creating an Office 365 Group behind the scenes. Maybe that doesn’t really matter to an end user, but the fact that a “Team” is also a “Group” is another terminology SNAFU.

So What?

Some people might say that as an “IT Pro”, one should always understand all of these terms intrinsically, but I doubt that it’s often the case that this is true. The terms cross different “workloads” in Office 365 and can vary in terminology from their on premises counterparts, especially across server versions. Add to that the fact that many “admins” are the lone SharePoint/Exchange/Office 365/Chief Cook/Bottle Washer in their organization, and there is little hope they will understand the nuances. Heck, I do this stuff for a living and I find it confusing. Sometimes things are hard for no good reason.

Let’s assume we have an organization which is totally sold on the value of Office 365 Groups (note the capitalization of “groups”). If they have been using SharePoint and Exchange either on premises or in Office 365, they probably already have a mix of all the different types of “groups” shown above. When someone in that organization tries to create an Office 365 Group for – say – the Executive Team, it’s highly likely they will get an error like:

Note that “group alias” is not one of the terms used above, nor does the error give even an inkling of how to solve the problem. Not even a worthless “Contact your administrator” as a fine how-do-you-do. So, what is the user likely to do?

Well, I’ll posit that they will create a Group named “Executive Group” or “Executives” or something else spelled a little differently. That Group won’t be linked to any of the previous artifacts and thus will begin the route to more chaos that we had before.

Of course, this is a real use case I’ve run into at an actual client, as is often the case with my beefs. As far as I can tell, there is no way to convert a “Mail-enabled security group” to an “Office 365 group” without some sort of Powershell tomfoolery. That’s just bad. I’ve reached out to my MVP network for help here and I’ll update this post if I’m wrong – and I’d love to be.

This is where the old Microsoft line would have been that it’s a great “partner opportunity” or that there are “$9 spent in consulting for every $1 spent on server products”. Those were always crappy answers, and they were often driven by confusing things just like this. The “avoid a mess” or “clean up the mess” roles fell to partners who were more than happy to lap up the dollars agonized organizations were willing to toss them to fix things.

The new Microsoft doesn’t want to work this way, but in many cases, their own large size and competing teams (small “t”, generic use) still lead us to these sorts of problems.

One of the things we as consultants spend a *lot* of time doing is working with organizations to build a common set of terminology. Sometimes you may hear this called taxonomy or ontology, but the bottom line point is to get everyone to agree to a set of words and phrases that they can use consistently to express the same thing. If I came out of one of those efforts with as many terms as I’ve listed above, I’d consider the effort a failure, especially if several terms meant essentially the same thing.

The Ask

So, Dear Microsoft, please tighten up the terminology as quickly as you can. Next we need to know how to convert each of the old, legacy types of “groups” to an Office 365 Group – without resorting to Powershell. Ideally, we should just be able to click a button on any of the old things to make it a new thing, which would take us through a process (if we need one) to get it done.

Even better, when I try to create that Executive Team Office 365 Group, walk me – as a user – through fixing the issue. In other words, help me solve the problem BEFORE I’ve created the mess, so I don’t need to call a consultant to fix things. (Yes, nose, face, etc., but I think most of us consultants would rather be building valuable functionality than cleaning up messes. If your consultants relish this type of work – beware.)

Make it easy for us to help ourselves. Cut down on those support calls. Stop making your customers hire expensive consultants to clean up messes. Make Office 365 the best it can be.


Post 999! Sadly, I may have just used up my allotment of quote characters for any future posts.

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