Microsoft Teams: Communicate, Collaborate, Control

By on October 16, 2017,

Not quite a year old, Teams has already grown into an impressive tool with a promising future

If you’re not familiar with it, Microsoft Teams is Redmond’s chat-based workspace.  But that label doesn’t do it justice.  Read on to learn more about the past, present and future of this impressive tool.

Since Teams went GA in mid-March of 2017 (and beta in November of 2016), there has been a lot of discussion about Microsoft Teams and its primary competitor – Slack.  Slack was out first and got a lot of early attention (including some rumors about Microsoft looking to buy them).  When Teams was released, there were instant comparisons between the two tools.  Since then, both tools have grown and added new functionality, but in a head-to-head competition, it seems to me that Teams has grown more.  Now maybe that’s because they were, to a certain extent, playing catch-up to Slack, but simply looking at a feature list shows that Teams has easily surpassed Slack in the number of feature boxes it can check.  Recent announcements from Microsoft’s Ignite in September 2017 point to an aggressive growth plan and a huge set of enhancements coming to Teams in the not-too-distant future.

Chat-based Workspace?

To understand Teams (and Slack) you need to look at the evolution of business communications.  Things have changed a bit since this was state-of-the-art:

And even this is no longer the preferred communication tool any longer for a lot of people:

 

The problem with email for collaborative work is three-fold:

  1. It is point-to-point It generally involves two people and resides in their Inboxes, making it difficult for others to be involved.  Sure, there can always be multiple participants, distribution lists,  Reply All, etc but the communication is still only between the people involved.  People coming on board late have no easy way of coming up to speed.
  2. People’s Inboxes are the catch-all, overflowing with far too many messages. People with overflowing inboxes are almost certainly going to miss something.  Sure, there are Rule capabilities to help triage and file messages, but few people really use them effectively and too often, they make messages harder to find rather than easier (“I wonder which rule grabbed this message first and filed it in a folder somewhere…”)
  3. Email is not conducive to short, Q&A type communications. It is way too “formal” for the type of back and forth communication that a collaborative effort often requires.

Instead of a single, folder-based paradigm like email, Teams adds an additional level of the appropriately named Team.  Each Team can consist of multiple Channels and each Channel can have its own collection of files, apps, conversations and other tabs, which we’ll discuss later.

So how does this all of this come together to deliver a chat-based workspace?  Here’s a screenshot from Teams that I’ll use to explain the concept:

Figure 1: Teams workspace. Image (c) Microsoft

The major elements show here are as follows:

  • Left-hand navigation: Allows you to move across the major areas of the Teams workspace:
    1. Activity: shows mentions, replies and other notifications for the current user across any Teams and Channels of which they are a member.
    2. Chat: chats are different from Channel conversations. The former are private, accessible only to the participants, whereas Channel discussions are available to anyone in the Team.
    3. Teams: lists the different Teams for the current user. Teams is active in this screenshot, and it shows the Team “2017 New Range” (#2) and the Channels within that Team (#3).
    4. Meetings – Shows the users schedule as well as the ability to schedule meetings. Meetings can be held right inside Teams, including audio and video.
    5. Files – quick access to files across all Teams for the current user as well as their OneDrive for Business. Files can be opened in the Office clients or users can do concurrent editing directly in Teams.
  • Tabs: Across the top are customizable tabs. By default there are tabs for Conversations, Files and Wiki, but you can add additional tabs.  Tabs are a huge piece of what makes Teams a full-fledged workspace for users – the ability to access all of the information, conversations and functionality they need to get their job done all in one place.  Here are the default options for new tabs, but you can also include integrations with external apps like Trello, ZenDesk, GitHub and more.

 

  • Threaded chat conversations. The heart of Teams is its chat interface.  Here we see the conversations in the “Launch” Channel.
  • @Mention indicator, a small indicator highlights ant messages you are tagged in
  • Meetings: Join meetings in real-time, watch recordings of meetings or read the automatically generated transcripts.

Security & Control

Like everything else integrated in Office 365, Teams can be managed and locked down as necessary, including the ability to prevent mobile clients from sharing information available through Teams with other applications on the mobile device (think Facebook, Whats App, Twitter, etc).  Also included in the security capabilities is the ability to permit or block external users either globally or on a Team-by-Team basis, as well as restrict what those Guest users can do.

The Future

At the 2017 Ignite conference, Microsoft made some major announcements regarding the future of Teams.  Primarily these all revolve around the merging of the Skype for Business chat client and Teams.  This will also bring the ability to do teleconferencing, enhanced videoconferencing and broadcasts directly into Teams.

It also means that Microsoft is consolidating their Presence Model.   Currently Teams and Skype for Business have their own means of managing user presence, and these are only loosely connected so you may end up with inaccurate presence information.  In the future, this will work off of a single model so presence will be much more accurate.

Conclusion

Microsoft Teams is a solid contender for cross-department, even cross-organization collaboration.  It provides impressive functionality in its Web, Desktop and Mobile clients that gives users a one-stop-shop for all of their team tasks.

 

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