Updates make Office 365 Groups more useful

by Tony Redmond
May 21, 2015

Office 365 Groups provide a single source of identity for access to components drawn from Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and OneNote Online... and that's just the start. New links with Delve make groups more discoverable, new mobile applications make them more portable, and new APIs make them a viable platform for applications. But the best thing of all is the appearance (finally) of a recycle bin. Humble, unappreciated, but essential. Like so many of the finer things in life.

On Tuesday, I discussed how changes in engineering practices are driving innovation within Office 365. One of the more interesting areas is the use of Office 365 Groups to provide a single identity for access to applications and data drawn from across the service. Microsoft spent a lot of time discussing what they’re up to with Office 365 Groups at the recent Ignite conference. The news about groups, which will remain limited to Office 365, can be broken down into two parts: what Microsoft is enabling right now for tenants around the world and the features included in the roadmap for the rest of 2015.

Four major updates or announcements have happened recently. First, Microsoft has revamped the SharePoint document library associated with each group and used to store shared files to bring its functionality up to speed with other SharePoint document libraries. Specifically, groups now support a recycle bin to allow deleted documents to be recovered, sharing of documents from the library with other users, and rename and copy operations. None of these are earth shattering in themselves, but it’s all functionality that is welcome because each feature is often required when working with collections of documents. Quite how the recycle bin took so long to appear is a mystery in itself. Microsoft also provides a “Shared with us” view for document libraries to provide a quick view for users to know what files have been shared with a group by other groups or users.

Second, more information emerged at Ignite about the unified Office 365 REST-based API announced at the Build conference. The API covers much more than groups, but Microsoft made a big thing at Ignite of the potential that exists for developers to build applications that take advantage of groups as an access mechanism or to incorporate threaded discussions or the shared calendar. More information about the new API, including an interesting way to test out access to various types of Office 365 data can be found on the API’s landing page and reference.

Third, behind the scenes Microsoft has transformed the type of Azure Active Directory object used by Office 365 Groups. Originally, these objects were mapped onto a group mailbox object, which made them impossible to synchronize with an on-premises Exchange deployment. Now the objects are treated much like regular distribution groups, which makes it possible to synchronize them with on-premises Active Directory and use them with on-premises Exchange. You’ll need to use the AADConnect tool for synchronization. Moving to the new object type also removes a number of scalability restrictions that previously existed. Also, the group naming policy used to control the names that users can give to distribution groups now applies to Office 365 Groups too.

The original implementation of Office 365 Groups was handicapped by poor PowerShell support. You could examine a group’s properties but not much else. The old –GroupMailbox cmdlet sets are replaced by new –UnifiedGroup and –UnifiedGroupLinks cmdlets to provide a much more powerful framework upon which to script group management. It’s even possible to create a script to convert a traditional Exchange distribution group to an Office 365 group!

All of this is goodness and make Office 365 Groups a more attractive platform for collaboration, as long as you’re an Office 365 tenant. Because Office 365 Groups are designed to leverage so many parts of the service, Microsoft confirmed that this functionality will not be transferred on-premises.

Microsoft also took the opportunity at Ignite to announce what they are working on to enhance Office 365 Groups. By the end of 2015, they hope to roll out the following:

  • An integration with Office Delve so that in their personal dashboards, Delve will show users groups that they might be interested in joining. The recommendations are based on signals from colleagues. For example, if someone who is collaborating with you on a document joins a group, that’s a signal that you might be interested in the same group. Delve will also provide access to a group profile listing the members and who’s online. If the group is public, recent content such as documents available to group members or discussions that they’re having, will also be shown. You’ll also be able to use Delve to search for relevant groups.
  • The ability for group members to publish “beautiful, modern, responsive” web pages onto a corporate Intranet to publicize the work of the group and communicate with the rest of the organization. The pages are easy to create and support embedded content, such as PowerPoint presentations. Metadata about page views is tracked and captured.
  • Mobile applications for Apple iOS, Android, and Windows Phone (a universal app) will allow users to browse their favorite groups, participate in discussions, and access files in the group library.
  • Compliance is a weak area for the content gathered in groups today. This will be addressed by implementing integrated eDiscovery across all group content, support for in-place holds, and data loss prevention policies.
  • Groups that are deleted cannot be recovered today. You’ll be able to do this when a soft-delete function is implemented.
  • Dynamic groups will be supported in much the same way as Exchange supports dynamic distribution groups by resolving group membership through queries executed against Azure Active Directory.
  • External users will be able to participate in groups and access group content. This won’t be done by simply sharing specific files with external users. Microsoft wants to provide the ability for an external user to play a full role in a group and participate as if they were a fully-fledged user in the tenant.

Microsoft also pointed out that you can already add a group to a SharePoint site and so solve one of the perennial issues associated with management of site permissions by using groups as the basis for adding and removing permissions. They plan to make this process much simpler and easier to use in future.

All in all, the amount of development going into Office 365 Groups is really quite amazing. The potential present in the model was obvious from its beginning, but it’s so much better when the potential is being realized.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on May 26, 2015

Re: "ability for an external user to play a full role in a group and participate as if they were a fully-fledged user in the tenant"
This is what I have been waiting for! Maybe I can drag my feet until that feature is available instead of cobbling together a solution that involves Google Groups.

on Jun 3, 2015

You are not the only one who is waiting for the ability for an external user to play a full part in group activity...

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