Ad Hoc Collaboration

Ad Hoc Collaboration in Office 365 – Promoting Productivity

One of the biggest struggles that organizations, and people have is seeing the plethora of collaboration options in Office 365 and SharePoint and trying to determine which to use.  Be it email, SharePoint sites, Skype for Business, OneDrive for Business, Yammer, O365 Groups, or the incipient Teams there are a lot of ways to collaborate in the modern digital workplace.  So, which one is right for you?  More importantly, which one will drive productivity for your team?

In true consulting form…it depends.

Seriously, it does depend, and this is where a lot of users and organizations falter.  Most users don’t want to have to think about where to store a file or how to share it with others.  They want a singular solution for their needs and use it all the time.  This just isn’t going to work for a number of reasons.  For one, each task that we undertake in our jobs is different and much like you cannot have just a single tool, say a hammer, in your tool box at home, using just one tool at work isn’t going to suffice.  That hammer works great when you are driving nails, but your won’t be very productive using it to cut boards, or sand wood.

So, how do we determine what we should use?  Well, that will come from what you are trying to accomplish right now.  I like to break collaboration into three big categories:

  1. Personal Collaboration
  2. Structured Collaboration
  3. Ad Hoc Collaboration

Tons of EmailAt the personal level, ease of use for you the end user is the paramount driver because that is what drives their productivity.  You store your files and information how you want it and rely on your domain knowledge to find it later because, essentially, its just you.  If you are an email hoarder, then by all means store everything in email.  If its deep file structures that makes sense to you, have at it.  In the end, it is just you that matters because you are the primary person who is using the information.  Lastly, when you leave the organization, your personal collaboration tends to go away.  Maybe not immediately, but eventually those files will be lost and as a result its best not to store important or critical organizational data in personal collaboration locations.

Team StructureThings get more complex at the structured level.  Here these are permanent files that many people will store, access, and search for.  This means that what might make sense for you, might not for another employee.  Thus these tend to be shared, make extensive use of metadata, and are permanent in nature.  This is where organizations will spend a lot of time and effort to create a taxonomy, content types, retention policies, etc.  One of the biggest advantages of structure collaboration areas is that they provide a long term storage location for important data even when the creator leaves the organization.  One of the disadvantages is that most organizations don’t ever clean out their structure collaboration which means that there is often a lot of Redundant, Obsolete, and Trivial (ROT) stored there.

But what about Ad Hoc Collaboration?  When do we use that?  Well, Ad Hoc collaboration is actually the most common form of collaboration in almost every organization.  This is a small team of people who are working on a set of tasks towards a goal that is usually temporary in nature.  This might be a project to roll out a new product, or it might be a team working on a budget presentation.  It could also be a group who are planning a marketing event.  In all of these cases, the group is small and as a result their needs for structure are usually significantly less than in structured collaboration, but more than personal collaboration.

When we are looking at ad hoc collaboration it can usually be identified by two main criteria:

  1. Limited duration for the work (also known as short term, spontaneous and on-demand)
  2. Number of people doing the work (also known as task specific)

Look at a project as an example.  Projects have a specific duration and a specific team of users that are part of the project.  Those people, for the duration of the project, need to have a location to collaborate.  That includes communication, file storage, coordination of tasks, and potentially more.  These types of work are the very common in organizations, and yet they are also the ones that, for the most part, are the most ignored by organizations.  Lucky for us,  Microsoft has some great solutions for us going forward.  Some have been around for a while and some are new, but all can solve our need for ad hoc collaboration.

For ad hoc collaboration to work well in your organization, it has to be:

  1. Responsive
  2. Flexible
  3. Seamless
  4. Embedded

By Responsive we mean that when I need to collaborate I need to do it now.  Not tomorrow or next week, or even in a few hours.  A responsive system will allow me to immediately access collaboration and communication tools, ideally without having to ask someone else to create or setup anything for me.  In short, it empowers the end users.

By Flexible we mean that the ad hoc system has to be able to meet the varied needs of our end users no matter what they are trying to accomplish.  Be that store files, or schedule meetings, or communicate with each other, or plan tasks, or anything that the users need to do.  The system needs to enable them to get their work done.

By Seamless we mean that the system needs to be a better solution than existing collaboration and communication solutions.  Users already have email, calendars, file storage, and more.  How will this solution make their work easier and more intuitive as opposed to making it more difficult.

By Embedded we mean that the system has to live in the tools that they are already using on a daily basis.  We don’t want to add a new place for them to get work done, we want to make their current work locations better.

I call these the Ad Hoc Matrix.

Existing Options

What about using the tools that we have always had?  After all, we have email already and that can allow us to communicate.  We have file shares, or OneDrive for Business, or even existing SharePoint sites…why not use those for our ad hoc collaboration?  Good question, and honestly that is what most organizations currently do.  How many times have you gotten an email from a co-worker asking you to review a document, make some changes, and get it back to them?  Or, if you use OneDrive for Business, do the same, but by sharing a link to a document.  Sometimes organizations will create an ad hoc collaboration section of their SharePoint intranet and even automate parts of it.  At Catapult we do that with project sites as an example.

So, if we can do that, why isn’t that the solution?  Well, in the case of the use of email, calendaring, and files in OneDrive, it is adding a lot of work to the team members to actually keep track of emails and files.  Maybe one person shares a file and then another person creates one in their OneDrive and shares it.  Now the files are in two locations.  Or, they only exist in an email thread.  IF you need to find an email related to that effort…it is up to you to save it and then know where to find it later.  On the more structured side, you end up with having to request a site and that may take time, and your options are often limited as IT has built a selection of ad hoc templates and your needs may not be met by them.

So, how does Personal Collaboration stack up in our Ad Hoc Matrix?

Area Rating Notes
Responsive High Personal tools are very responsive as they are “owned” by the individual user.
Flexible Medium Users can pick and choose from a wide variety of tools that meet their work style, but that style may not match other users.
Seamless Low The issue here is that while we have multiple ways to communicate and collaborate, they are all separate tools and thus take a lot of effort for users to coordinate.
Embedded High Since users should be living in their Personal Collaboration areas already, this should be very easy for them to adapt to.

What about Structured Collaboration?

Area Rating Notes
Responsive Low Many organizations do not provide self-service ad hoc collaboration options.  This means that a request has to be made to get an area to collaborate and communicate.
Flexible Low Most structured areas are not designed to be flexible.  They are one-size fits all because they are designed to maximize things like findability of information later.
Seamless Medium-High Depending on how the areas are designed this can be anywhere from medium to high.  Most ad hoc areas do not allow for communications to be integrated, but some do.
Embedded Medium Most users spend a great deal of time in Structured Collaboration areas, but due to their size and complexity, it isn’t always easily apparent where ad hoc work should be done in them.

New Options

So, Microsoft has provided some new options for us.

  1. Yammer
  2. O365 Groups
  3. Microsoft Teams

Let’s look at how each of these tools meets our Ad Hoc Matrix

Yammer

Yammer ESNMicrosoft’s Enterprise Social Network is a powerful Ad Hoc Collaboration option.  Users can easily communicate with each other all across the organization, and even with external users as well.  It provides a web interface as well as mobile OS options for users on the go, and Microsoft is rolling out that each Yammer group that is created will get a SharePoint site collection for file storage and other features.

Area Rating Notes
Responsive High Every user can create a group in Yammer anytime that they want to.
Flexible Medium-High Each group offers embedded communication, file storage, and a SharePoint site collection behind the scenes allowing users to accomplish almost anything.
Seamless High Yammer Groups organize everything into one location and can be accessed via the web, or via native mobile apps.  They can also be surfaced in other applications like SharePoint or Dynamics 365 so that users don’t have to leave their normal work to use them.
Embedded Medium If your users are already using Yammer, then its very seamless.  However, many organizations struggle with Yammer adoption and this can cause issues with people not wanting to use Yammer. One way to help is to teach users how to get email notifications from their group.

O365 Groups

GroupsConversationO365 Groups have been around for almost two years now and are growing in popularity every day.  They provide an email based communications with a group calendar that is much like your personal one in Exchange.  In addition you get a Document Library and a OneNote that are stored in a SharePoint site collection as well as access to a Planner and the ability to add extensions to the group.  You can allow everyone to see the content or make it private and you can include users from outside of your organization in the group as well.  One of the interesting features that make the group powerful is that each group gets an email address that anyone can send email to and the group will get that email.

Area Rating Notes
Responsive High Office 365 Groups can be created by any user that has their email in the cloud.  This means that anyone can quickly and easily create and use them.
Flexible High Out of the Box you get conversations, calendaring, file storage, OneNote, and a Planner.  Behind the scenes there is a full SharePoint site collection that can be leveraged.
Seamless High The UI is a bit clunky, but it is getting better with every iteration, but its easy to find O365 Groups and to find content in them.
Embedded High Because O365 Groups are part of Exchange and SharePoint they are easy to find and familiar to work with.  Conversations come as emails to users, and files are stored in something the looks like OneDrive for Business or SharePoint.  In addition there is a powerful mobile app that allows users to work while on the go.

Microsoft Teams

MSTeamsWhile this is still technically in preview as of the writing of this blog, this is a big push for Microsoft.  Teams are actually built on top of Office 365 Groups and provide almost the same basic functionality.  The big difference is that they use a persistent chat interface for communication as opposed to a web interface for Yammer and email for O365 Groups.  This means that for those that prefer to communicate in short messages that involve a lot of back and forth (like Instant Messages or Text Messages), this might be the perfect solution.  You can create a team and invite people to it, then create channels in that team that each have their own chat history. You still get file storage and integration with other areas like PowerBI and Planner and you also get a Bot that you can use to get help about Teams.  In addition to the web based interface and the mobile OS offerings, there is a full desktop clients for Teams.

Area Rating Notes
Responsive High Users can create teams and have full control over them.  Inside of teams members can create their own channels for specific topics.
Flexible High Teams provides communication and collaboration tools for users.  Like O365 Groups you also get a full SharePoint site collection behind the scenes.
Seamless High Teams keeps everything related to the team organized in one place on a series of tabs.  One tab for the conversation, another for files, and you can add your own tabs to display files, Planners, or PowerBI reports.
Embedded Medium This depends on your users, but since it requires either a new website or an app to get to Teams it is not as fully embedded as O365 Groups.

Conclusion

Ad hoc collaboration is about maximizing your organizations productivity by empowering the users to spontaneously and on demand perform their tasks.  While Personal Collaboration and Structured Collaboration tools can be used, they are not the optimal, and thus most productive tools, to promote collaboration.  Microsoft in Office 365 offers some powerful Ad Hoc Collaboration tools to your organization and implementing them can greatly increase productivity, but a word of caution…you need to manage this organizational change or you run the risk of the tools driving your organization as opposed to your needs driving the tools.

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