Have Office 365 Groups killed the SharePoint Team Site?

Courtesy of Saul Shepherd

“Are SharePoint Team Sites dead” with the arrival of Office 365 groups? some think so: ‘the era when SharePoint Team Sites was the king of SharePoint and web based collaboration are over. SharePoint Team Sites are dead” source: http://www.wictorwilen.se/sharepoint-team-sites-are-dead).

In the opinion of many, myself included (see references at the end of this post), reports of SharePoint’s Team Sites’ demise are both premature and based on the incorrect premise that use of Team Sites and Office 365 Groups is mutually exclusive…but let’s get some definitions straight initially.

For more than a decade Team Sites have provided (on premises and now online SharePoint) a central storage and collaboration space for documents and information. SharePoint Team Sites are created for people who need to work together on the same organizational function or subject, whether a client, a customer, a shared services activity or a project. Team Sites provide sophisticated functionality for team collaboration and document management: metadata for content profiling, workflow for process automation, newsfeeds for team update publishing, calendars for meeting scheduling, wikis and blogs for tacit knowledge capture, OneNote for note recording, task lists for effort co-ordination…and the list goes on.

The Office 365 Group is a new feature available in Office 365, it also enhances team collaboration and information sharing. Each 365 Group has its own Outlook inbox, calendar, file storage location (OneDrive), OneNote notebook for note recording and Planner for task creation and co-ordination.

They sound very alike, right? Well yes and no, the devil is in the detail of how Office 365 Groups and Team Sites differ. So what are the differences?

Let’s start with Office 365 Group’s limitations when compared to Team Sites.

1. 365 Groups provide only light document management. Using OneDrive as their file repository there is limited document management functionality available: no metadata, workflows, multiple document libraries, custom lists; making them insufficient for managing large collections of documents.
2. 365 Group’s OneDrive cannot utilize their tenant’s enterprise SharePoint configurations, such as content types and metadata. This undermines information management standards that provide consistent document profiling and search.
3. 365 Groups are not organized in any hierarchical structure, so users who have not been invited to the group, have to search on Office 365 Group name to discover the one they need. As a result, information can be hidden away in Groups, particularly ‘private’ ones and not readily accessible outside of the Group’s members.
4. As 365 Groups sit outside of the organization’s information architecture it is easy for end users to create duplicate Office 365 Groups, again creating information silos.
5. With 365 Groups sitting outside of the organization’s information architecture and the ease in which their content can be shared, the opportunity and also the risk for security breaches of sensitive content is increased (though Governance controls will help mitigate this).

So what advantages do 365 Groups have over Team Sites then?

1. They live in Outlook, where people spend so much of their work time and whose functionality people are familiar. SharePoint’s interface has always required some user training for people to use it effectively.
2. They are easy to set up (Governance rules withstanding) so people can spin them up quickly and start collaborating within minutes. To create a SharePoint site, even using a site template, is much more involved.
3. Starting conversations around the topic of the 365 Group is easy and intuitive; tag ‘Likes’ in the conversation thread to show preferences and highlight content
4. New Office 365 members are able to pick up all prior conversations bringing them quickly up to speed with the task or project.
5. Document management functionality is basic so requires minimal training to use.

So, the strengths and weaknesses of 365 Groups and SharePoint Team Sites suggest that when deciding to use one or the other it is a ‘best fit to use case’ question. 

The following might assist when determining this.
1. Is the subject matter already managed or is part of a broader topic or function already managed in a Team Site?
2. Will the subject spawn the need for additional 365 Groups related to the same or closely related subject?
3. Will the volume of documents to be stored a large volume (more than a hundred)?
4. Will content to be stored be referred to by the organization in the medium to long term?
5. Will people in your organization, not just members of the proposed 365 Group, need to refer and access its content?
6. Will any of its content need to be captured as organizational records?
7. Will the project or task driving the need for a collaborative area involve a medium to large team of people, e.g. more than 10?
8. Is the subject and content of the proposed collaborative area organizationally sensitive? Is granular security required to secure content even between team members?
9. Will any documents need to go through a workflow process, eg document approval?

If there is a ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, then a Team Site is likely to be a better option than a 365 Group. A ‘No’ suggests an Office 365 Group might be a better and more effective fit.

Therefore, the use of one or the other depends on your document collaboration use case. So, within your Office 365 tenancy their use should not be mutually exclusive, they are in fact complementary.  As noted by Richard Harbridge  determination of which Office 365 application to use “should NOT be considered a VERSUS discussion. This tool OR that tool. This should be a question of how can we best use the tools together. This tool AND that tool. We want to best use our enterprise technology investments TOGETHER for maximum results.  (see – “When To Use What” in Office 365 Enterprise User Guidance” http://www.2tolead.com/whitepaper-when-to-use-what-in-office-365/).

Other good discussions around this topic can be found: http://en.share-gate.com/blog/microsoft-modern-workplace, https://medium.com/@DarrellCWebster/office-365-groups-files-and-sharepoint-team-site-document-libraries-59659afeb07#.4e9umjq64, http://en.share-gate.com/blog/groups-for-office-365, http://www.cmswire.com/social-business/what-are-office-365-groups/)

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