Understanding Microsoft Teams

For most of the past two years, my Office 365 conversations with clients have focused in whole or in part on understanding Microsoft Teams. Teams is Microsoft’s latest collaboration service, and is in fact built on older collaboration services in Office 365. What makes Teams such a challenge to explain and understand is that your understanding will largely depend on your starting point for comparison.

Microsoft Teams can be compared to:

  1. Skype or Zoom, as an audio/video/screen-sharing solution.
  2. SharePoint Online or Google Docs, as a shared repository for document co-authoring.
  3. OneDrive or Google Drive, because individuals can share files directly using Microsoft Teams.
  4. Slack, for persistent chat and chat-based workspaces.

It doesn’t help – or maybe it does – that two of those services are in fact leveraged by Teams.

I’ve been involved in several engagements where Teams would either compete against or sit alongside non-Microsoft solutions that would address the same requirements. Sometimes, this was business preference, or a solution was already so entrenched that Corporate IT was not in a position to remove it. In other cases, the organization deliberately chose to have multiple solutions with overlapping functionality.

MS Teams for Audio/Video and Screen-Sharing

If you’re already a Skype for Business customer, Microsoft Teams is the “Skype Replacement”. Microsoft has already announced that Skype for Business will be retired by July 2021, and administration of the two is already transitioning to a Teams focus in Office 365 administration.

The thing is, if you’re looking to move off of Skype anyway, and all you care about is audio/video conferencing with some screen-sharing, there are several other solutions on the market, notably Zoom Meetings and Cisco Webex. For very large meetings – company-wide “town halls” that are one-to-many broadcasts, there are also robust solutions from most major telcos. There’s also a whole additional world of complexity in the world of conference room hardware.

What Microsoft will say to any customer looking at MS Teams in a conferencing competition is, look at all the other things you can do in Teams: sharing, co-authoring, administrative controls and compliance tools. If all you care about is having meetings, there are a lot of solutions. If you want to connect conferencing with some other enterprise-grade administrative and collaboration solutions, Microsoft Teams is a more complete solution.

MS Teams for Document Sharing & Co-Authoring

Microsoft Teams creates a Modern Site in SharePoint Online for every Team that gets created. That means every Team has a shared space for organizing, sharing, and co-authoring documents. Office documents can be edited in Office, Office Web, and the Teams client. It’s also easy to share links to these documents in a Teams channel chat.

If you’re already using Modern Sites, this is probably a familiar and comfortable feature. However, if as an organization you’ve not transitioned to or adopted Modern Sites, it can be worrisome, especially if your security models and audit processes are built around traditional security groups.

If content collaboration is new to your organization – for example, if people are more used to working off network file shares, or they email documents back and forth – then co-authoring and collaboration available using Teams and SharePoint Online is going to be like boarding the Starship Enterprise after one of the Apollo program flights. There’s going to be a lot of training involved.

Here, the most common compete or user reference is Google Docs. “It’s like Google Docs”. If that’s the frame of reference for your users, then getting them to appreciate a Microsoft product might be a challenge. However, from an organizational standpoint, being able to use the same administrative, audit, and compliance tools in Office 365 for collaboration usually makes a lot more sense than having to implement the same controls in two different solutions.

MS Teams for Sharing Files Directly

Collaboration 1-1 usually means two people emailing a document back and forth. On a good day, they’ll be working off a file share, but either way they’ll typically end up with filenames like “Filename 001″”Filename 002” or “Filename date-authornameV2” and so on. The problem becomes “which version is the latest” and “why are some changes in this document and other changes in the other document”.

If you’re already using OneDrive, then a lot of these problems are solved; OneDrive is essentially built on SharePoint Online, and a user’s OneDrive is more or less a personal site collection. However, this capability gets a boost in Teams: in 1-1 and group chats, files shared in chat are shared via OneDrive; the persistent chat becomes the place to go to look up that link, rather than Outlook and its boundless emails.

While less common, OneDrive competes occur, usually with customers who have extensive Box, DropBox, or Google Docs usage; the advantages of Teams are largely the same as for SharePoint, as well as the challenges in pushing adoption. Some third-party conferencing solutions integrate with OneDrive, but how well can vary from product to product.

An additional advantage to sticking with OneDrive and Teams is that Office 365 has built-in controls to audit and restrict sharing. Managing what and to whom content is shared in other solutions requires either an additional process, or a third-party solution that integrates these controls.

MS Teams for Persistent Chat and Chat-Based Workspaces

This is often another Skype comparison, but also includes what is arguably Microsoft’s most-hyped competitor in this space: Slack. Both products include what I’ll distinguish as persistent chat and a “chat-based workspace”.

A persistent chat is a thread between one or more participants. It is its own object: a chat thread and nothing more; sometimes referred to as direct messaging. A “chat based workspace” however, refers to a chat function that is part of a larger workspace object. For example, in Teams, Each Team has a General channel and possibly other channels, and each channel gets its own chat. The distinction between the two might be likened between talking at the water cooler or someone’s desk, and walking into a conference room set aside for a specific meeting.

In this product space, additional functionality comes with third-party application integration: polling apps, bots, and the like. Microsoft’s position on a chat-focused compete will be that content shared in Teams can be administered as described above for SharePoint and OneDrive, and both a Team and a Teams user can independently be placed on Legal Hold.

So, Microsoft Teams is a lot of things. It’s a conferencing solution, a content collaboration and co-authoring solution, and a persistent chat solution. It’s all part of Office 365, and that is Microsoft’s pitch: you already have this. If you’re going to do any one of these, why not use Teams? You’ll get the rest of it.

This is a position that, in my experience, most clients either don’t understand or don’t care about. If they’re focused on one thing, that is all they are focused on. Getting additional functionality that they don’t care about is seen as Microsoft upselling or bringing in requirements that are not their own. If all you want is audio/video conferencing then Teams isn’t that compelling.

Yet, even if you are focused on only one thing, having the other capabilities is handy, even if you’re not ready for them. You may only want conferencing, but a transition to modern workplace is going to require document co-authoring and mobile access anyway. You may only want the co-authoring but, why make it harder to share content? Why not support chat and screen-sharing and whiteboarding, all in the same app, rather than require people to switch contexts?

Understanding Microsoft Teams requires understanding all of its capabilities. It may seem like a Swiss Army Knife, or a jack-of-all-trades -master-of-none, but it is in fact capable of serving all of these functions well. Unless there is a compelling feature that another solution offers, Teams, especially if it’s already licensed is usually the better choice for a comprehensive solution.

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