Collaboration Confusion: Understanding Microsoft Teams and why it exists

April 4th, 2017

“Really Microsoft?  ANOTHER social app?” This was how many of us reacted when we first heard of Microsoft Teams.  For years Microsoft has been building or buying tools that are intended to open up the rigid structure of an enterprise, breaking down the traditional organizational silos, to allow for meaningful communication and collaboration amongst its employees.  Microsoft Teams is yet another member of this ever-growing social portfolio.

“Can there be too much?”

At first glance it seems redundant.  Teams is an application that is meant to enable a group of people (sometimes called a team) within an enterprise to chat, share ideas, collaborate on documents, and ultimately create a digital workspace.  Just like SharePoint does.  And Yammer.  And Groups.  Notice a trend here?  With this massive array of social enablers, it is easy to question the addition of yet another application that contributes to the collaboration confusion.  When we start to look closer at the individual tools that compose Microsoft’s social ecosystem it becomes clear that not only does Microsoft have a plan but that Teams fills an essential role.

“What do you do here?”

To understand the role of this new application, we must first understand its function.  Microsoft Teams is a channel (or room) based application that provides persistent multi-threaded conversations.  Based on Office 365 and interfaced with Skype, Teams is designed to be a true digital workspace for small teams.  The creation of Microsoft Teams is a direct response to the flood of persistent, channel based team collaboration solutions that has dominated the social enterprise market.  At the forefront of this movement is Slack, a collaboration startup that has seen over a billion dollars of investment.

What separates this wave of social collaboration from existing tools like instant messaging or IRC is the concept of a persistent conversation.  Whether a conversation occurred last year or in the last minute it is available for review.  Even if a member had not been present during the initial exchange, the conversation will still be available to them.  Furthermore, these conversations can branch into subconversations called threads, that keeps conversations oriented around a single post.  These tools are designed around conventions already established by social media; including support for familiar mechanics such as #hashtag topics and @targeted messages.

Microsoft Teams has one key differentiator from Slack and its brethren.  Slack is a product; Microsoft Teams is a feature.  Instead of marketing this tool as a separate product, Microsoft included Teams in all Office 365 licenses that are Business Premium or higher.  The addition of Teams, at no additional cost, to the power of Office 365 offers an amazing value proposition as more and more companies begin exploring the social enterprise and cloud solutions.

“Two apps enter, one app leaves!”

Even within Office 365, Teams looks like it has competition.  When comparing functionality, we see Teams has overlap with Skype, Groups, SharePoint, and Yammer.  Microsoft Teams is built upon Office 365 Groups sharing functionality and sometimes content.  For every Team created, a corresponding Group is created.  Despite this dependency, Teams and Group content are not always shared.  Conversations, Tasks (Planner), Connectors, and the Group homepage are all separate in the two features.  Since Teams uses Groups as a foundation, Teams shares the same limitations that prevents it from being a direct competitor to other Office 365 offerings like SharePoint and Exchange.  Skype and Teams both offer instant messaging, screen share, and audio/video calls but instead of competing with Skype, Teams is designed to interface directly with the Skype network.  The largest overlap in functionality comes when comparing Microsoft Teams to Yammer.  Yammer is Microsoft’s social network for the enterprise.  It offers a great deal of the same functionality as Microsoft Teams; shared files, persistent conversations, collaboration areas, etc.…  It was even recently integrated into Office 365 to leverage Groups, just like Teams!

“Everything has a purpose”

So how can Yammer and Teams both have a place in Microsoft’s social ecosystem?  The answer lies not in functionality but in capacity.  Yammer is intended to be the collaboration and sharing tool for the enterprise while Microsoft Teams is designed to be the digital workspace a team uses to get the job done.  Where Yammer tends to be a more formal, reserved environment due to the visibility across the organization, Teams is designed to be fun and silly.  Teams within an organization tend to have cultures that differ vastly from that of the organization, often much more relaxed and open.  Microsoft acknowledges this culture shift and works to facilitate relaxed communication among team members by embedding features commonly found in mainstream social apps, such as a MEME maker, stickers, and animated GIFs.

This is Microsoft’s vision for social; a network for the company to collaborate and a workspace to get the job done.

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