The ongoing debate over Office 365 Groups and Yammer

The ongoing debate over Office 365 Groups and Yammer

On June 11, Jim Lundy contributed an article titled “Office 365 Groups versus Yammer: Is Microsoft Pulling the Plug on Yammer?” and speculated that Microsoft’s focus on Office 365 Groups at May’s Ignite conference contained the message that Yammer is on the slippery slope to software extinction. In fact, Jim was really just poking at the debate that exists within Office 365 circles when the time comes to decide which tool should be used to support an organization’s collaboration needs.

I am no great fan of Yammer and have written in the past about the confusion that exists between it and Office 365 Groups. I hear that confusion expressed by customers all the time, especially in Microsoft’s Office 365 IT Pro Network (run on Yammer) where Office 365 tenants ask Microsoft where they should invest their time and energy when seeking to deploy a solution for team collaboration. Microsoft's focus for enterprise social networking within Office 365 seems to be Yammer, but Office 365 Groups gets lots of recent air time. So should they deploy Yammer or Groups?

Office 365 tenants have a wide range of functionality to draw upon to meet business needs. But sometimes people insist in limiting their vision to focus in on just one tool. I remain bemused by those who believe that a collaboration tool like Yammer can replace email as the premier tool for business communications. However, I keep on running into those who truly believe this to be the case.

I was amused when the EWeek review of Office 365 Groups following the Office 2016 launch said that Groups were "a Yammer-inspired information-sharing and collaboration feature". What a load of smelly horse manure! Office 365 Groups are much closer to the classic combination of Exchange distribution group and public folder than they are to threaded conversations. 

Let’s be blunt here. Yammer is nothing new (Notes-11 and VAX Notes existed 30 years ago and provided much the same functionality, albeit in a green-screen world). Yammer is not blazing a trail in collaboration technology. Its interface is not really all that good and its fit into the compliance features available in Office 365 is poor to non-existent - conversations are not exposed to eDiscovery nor are IM conversations. It’s also very difficult to interact with Yammer using different identities, such as wanting to participate in one network using your work identity and in another using a personal identity. But given these weaknesses, Yammer is definitely a form of all-points-broadcast communication that is very useful and well suited in some circumstances, such as the basis for cross-company discussion of issues.

Other collaboration tools exist inside Office 365 that are better suited for the other ways that people need to communicate.

Email remains the king of the heap when it comes to direct inter-personal communication, especially between organizations where email took the place of fax, telex, and telegraphs a long time ago.

SharePoint team sites are best suited for those who need to collaborate on a document-centric basis. In the hands of a skilled SharePoint expert, sophisticated workflows can be established to control the flow of documents from initiation to publication.

I believe that Office 365 Groups are a better choice when teams are small and require a mixture of collaborative modalities, including conversations, calendar, notes, and documents. The fact that Office 365 Groups are supported in Outlook 2016 gives Groups another advantage over Yammer, which is studiously ignored by Outlook. Indeed, given that Outlook and Outlook Web App are the clients for Office 365 Groups, it can be argued that “Outlook Groups” (as used for the mobile apps) is a better name.

But in addition to their advantages, all collaboration methods have their drawbacks and weaknesses.

The reputation and effectiveness of email is sadly corrupted by malware and spam. An overload of messages created by the Reply-All syndrome and other failings on the part of users can make their inboxes wickedly crowded. Tools like Clutter help to keep inboxes under control, but they work better for some people than others.

SharePoint team sites do a great job of managing documents but are weak in other aspects of collaboration. Microsoft is attempting to address the problem by enabling Yammer discussions for documents that Delve surfaces to users.

As the newest arrival, Office 365 Groups are evolving fast to close functionality gaps and extend their influence across the service. Some surprising gaps in functionality (like the inability to delete a contribution to a conversation) need to be fixed. The inability to include documents in libraries owned by private groups in compliance searches is another issue. Hopefully, these gaps will be addressed soon.

What does all this mean? Well, it’s obvious that there is no single good answer for every collaboration need, despite what the proponents of the different tools would have people believe. It therefore follows that the most important thing is to select the right tool for the job. It seems to me that:

  • All Office 365 tenants can make use of email to stay connected internally and externally
  • Tenants that have a background in email and Outlook will find it natural to use Office 365 Groups as the basis for team collaboration up to a limit of say, a thousand users.
  • Some tenants will prefer SharePoint team sites, especially if their needs are document-centric.
  • The larger the tenant grows, the more useful Yammer can be in terms of hosting large, relatively unstructured, discussions covering everything from issues affecting the entire company to new product development. If you need to understand how effective Yammer is in these kind of discussions, join Microsoft’s Office 365 IT Network to see how debates evolve (and to observe both good and bad user habits).

Company culture will clearly influence the choice. There’s no doubt that Yammer has been very successful for some, but that’s no reason to assume that it will fit the culture and operations in other organizations.  Depending on how they operate today, an organization might prefer using Office 365 Groups as the basis for teamwork. As pointed out above, if users consider Outlook to be the fulcrum of their working life, adopting Groups is a much easier choice than deploying Yammer would be, simply because Outlook 2016 makes Groups a natural extension of how these people already work. 

On the other hand, it might be true that newer companies are more open to using Yammer instead of email, possibly because they have not had the time to accrue well-ingrained (and in some cases, antique) working habits. And it’s also possible to find instances where large companies have successfully integrated Yammer in the suite of tools that they make available to employees to enable productivity.

All of this boils down to a single statement: use the right tool for the job. The answer might not be always clear, but I bet you that it’s never always Yammer. Focusing in on just one tool to the exclusion of others limits your options, and that is always a sad state of affairs.

The on-premises situation is much simpler because neither Office 365 Groups nor Yammer is available. Email and SharePoint team sites mark the limit of what’s possible.

Jim Lundy is right that Microsoft paid a lot of attention to Office 365 Groups at Ignite. I think this was simply because Ignite was their first chance to explain Groups to customers rather than a pointer to the imminent demise of Yammer.

I doubt that a definitive answer is possible to the debate as to the best collaboration tool because it’s hard to see how any one tool can ever hope to satisfy the differing needs of all organizations. For this reason, it’s good to have choice and it’s good to see Microsoft progressing the various applications running inside Office 365. Now all you have to do is choose.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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