Creating a common groups platform for Office 365

Creating a common groups platform for Office 365

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the question that many people have when they consider what collaboration platform to use within Office 365. Essentially, the choice is between Yammer and Office 365 Groups. The solutions use very different platforms and, in some respects, cater for different needs.

Yammer came to Microsoft through a $1.2 billion acquisition in June 2012. Buying Yammer made sense because it gave Microsoft presence in the enterprise social networking space that was getting a lot of press at the time. And it brought the genesis of the Office Graph database that now powers applications like Delve. However, I'm not sure that Yammer has delivered the kind of market success that Microsoft anticipated at the time.

Acquiring Yammer helped the transition in software engineering practices that we have seen within Microsoft since then where features are pushed out at an ever-increasing rate. According to Microsoft, they delivered over 450 changes within Office 365 in the last year, a cadence with which some find difficulty in coping. The funny thing is that many in the Yammer community consider that they have to wait far too long for new features since Microsoft took over.

Office 365 Groups were conceived within Microsoft to take advantage of assets that already exist inside Office 365. Exchange Online provides group mailboxes to hold conversations and calendar, SharePoint Online provides the document libraries, and a shared notebook is also available to each group. Outlook 2016 supports Office 365 Groups, which makes this solution more compelling to the folks who use Outlook day-in, day-out, assuming of course that their company upgrades to the latest version.

But here’s the nagging doubt. Why does Microsoft persist with two different collaboration platforms within Office 365? At least, why do they persist with the expenditure necessary to maintain and develop two different engineering infrastructures when it seems like it should be possible to provide a common platform to serve both? Microsoft is a cash-rich company but having two platforms that obviously compete in the same space seems to be an unnecessary luxury.

On the surface, it might seem that Office 365 Groups are more email-centric while Yammer focuses on online conversations, but really that’s just a question of user interface and feature sets. Apart from some nice analytics (that can surely be implemented on top of any database), I don’t consider that Yammer has any earth shattering technology to bring to the table. Threaded conversations with unseen/seen maps have been around since the early 1980s. Fluffy stuff like “likes” are just user interface baubles that might or might not float your boat. 

It’s common to find that soon after software is acquired, various components are replaced by assets that exist within the acquiring company. This approach rationalizes the code base that has to be maintained and reduces engineering costs. I’m surprised that Yammer has been left in apparent splendid isolation so far and seemingly allowed to pursue its own technical strategy. In May, Microsoft said that greater integration is coming between Yammer and Groups, but little real results have been seen since.

I think the time is now right for radical change to move to a single collaboration platform that delivers on Microsoft's assertion that "Office 365 Groups and Office Graph comprise a shared intelligent fabric across Office 365 that’s also extensible."  One platform to rule them all...

Every collaboration platform that I have known is built around a database. Office 365 Groups actually use two (Exchange and SharePoint or ESE and SQL) whereas Yammer uses its own. Wouldn’t it make sense to move Yammer over to use either ESE or SQL?

Such a move seems to offer many advantages. For example, Yammer’s search functionality is weak. Exchange and SharePoint both use the Search Foundation, so moving Yammer to use either ESE or SQL should make Yammer data available to those indexes. In turn, this means that Yammer data would then be exposed to eDiscovery searches. It should also make it easier to apply compliance policies to Yammer by leveraging the work now in progress to create common policies that operate through the Office 365 Compliance Center. Another advantage would be gained by allowing Yammer to integrate more closely with the other Office 365 applications, such as using Skype for Business instead of its own Instant Messaging tool. Office 365 Groups already supports a REST-based API so the transition for programmers would be simple and further cost could be eliminated by having a single mobile app for Groups. You'd also gain PowerShell support for all groups rather than just for Office 365 Groups, which is the situation today.

Finally, you’d anticipate that better integration with the rest of Office 365 would make features such as single-sign on, multi-factor authentication, and support for more than a single identity easier to enable.

Some will complain that such a move would impact the unique style of Yammer. But really this is so much hot air because it is the user interface that creates a style and it is perfectly possible to retain the Yammer-style interface while replacing the database. After all, Exchange has many different clients with many different interfaces all accessing the same database. Outlook Web App is different to Outlook and both are different to the mobile clients.

Work is probably required to ensure that Yammer could continue to function as a outbound-facing collaboration platform (like it does for Microsoft's Office 365 IT Network), but less effort might be required to maintain this capability than to incorporate missing functionality like compliance into today's code base.

In short, I’d like to see Microsoft focus on a single collaboration/enterprise social networking platform implemented within Office 365 that supports Outlook, mobile, and web clients. A single set of groups would be available to all clients and the features available in each client would be tailored to meet the needs of whatever user community it is designed to serve. For instance, those who like the traditional Yammer user interface should be able to continue using a web client that looks and behaves as Yammer does today. While they keep the installed base happy, Microsoft can innovate with new clients and functionality to leverage the full power of Office 365. Because a common database is used by all clients, a contribution made by any client is visible to all.

The PowerShell cmdlets used to work with Office 365 Groups refer to them as “unified groups”. The approach I’ve outlined here would deliver true unified groups that can be used to meet multiple needs. Alas, while I have no knowledge of Microsoft’s long-term engineering plans in this space, I have a nasty feeling that the logic for such an approach might be undermined by organizational politics. But we can live in hope.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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