Some thoughts on Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams is a digital workspace. It tries to provide the functionality to replace what goes on in physical offices; people talking to each other, having meetings, working and sharing documents. It is useful for the shift towards remote working and matrix teams, but also important for enabling organisations to reconsider how they management knowledge as a competitive advantage.

Apart from the difficulty of the product being called ‘Teams’, and the headings that channels are grouped under are called ‘Teams’, and groups of people who work together are called teams, Microsoft Teams is actually a good product for moving an organisation towards using a digital workspace.

How teams use it depends very much on how IT configures the settings, but here are a few thoughts on using the usual functionality in Teams.

Channels

Channels consist of a stream of chronological posts, a file repository, and the ability to add other tabs for things like Planner.

The dominant thinking is that it’s better to set up fewer Teams with more Channels than having more Teams with fewer Channels. I think this should be considered in light of how an organisation structures itself as this advice includes the implicit understanding about how actual teams of people work together.

If established teams always work together on the same things, then fewer Teams (actually one Team per team) with more members and more channels, each about a particular project or work stream, makes sense as all members of the team have visibility of everything even if it isn’t directly related to them.

However, if lots of different people are involved in lots of different things, then more Teams (with however many channels is appropriate) seems to make sense as only those members involved in the work will be on that Team and so see what goes on in that Team.

Private Channels

Private channels are a way to achieve having fewer Teams with lots of Channels as the Team can include lots of members but those members will only see the Channels they are members of. However, as yet Private Channels don’t have the full functionality of open Channels.

Guest access

Teams can be set to only allow logins from within the organisation’s domain (via Active Directory) or set to allow guest access. Clearly, allowing people who aren’t under contract or NDA access to potentially sensitive information is an organisational decision that requires careful consideration, but if well managed can provide teams with a single platform to work with internal colleagues and external partners, rather than using Teams internally and something else for external communication.

Posts

Posts in Channels are a key functionality in Teams (that’s why the Posts tab is first). But Posts are also the most confusing thing. It isn’t clear how they should be used, whether they should be used instead of Chat, etc. A couple of things to consider is that Posts have replies, Chats don’t, which helps to focus a Post on a topic and provides a suggestion of how to use Posts. Posts have persistence as they hold the contents over time, can be saved to person’s Saved list, have images and files attached, and mention people to trigger a notification, all of which makes them useful for holding discussions on particular topics.

Immersive reader and voice

Posts can be read in the immersive reader and the voice functionality speaks the text in a post out loud. Unfortunately, single posts have to be read separately rather than as a stream, which seems like it might be more useful, but its still good to see Microsoft thinking about accessibility and how to include voice in Teams in the future.

Chat

Chat offers persistent web messaging, which means that the history of your chats with someone is not lost as it is with Skype. As anyone in the organisation can chat with anyone else, Chat isn’t limited in the same way Teams and Channels are.

Chats have the same file repository capabilities as channels, so files that are added to the chat and so hosted in Teams are available to both (or all) participants.

Group chats

Group chats are a quick and easy way to get people from different teams together to either discuss an immediate issue or to have ongoing contact with each other. It doesn’t rely on everyone being in the same Team, and is easier than creating a new Team for what is often

Group chat or posting in channels? This is an immediacy vs. persistence question. If being able to get people’s attention quickly is important then a Group Chat is probably the better solution. If making the information available over a longer period of time is more important then posting in the channel (and @-ing someone to get their attention) offers greater persistence.

If Group Chats could be added to a tab in a channel this either/or choice could be avoided, but this isn’t possible at the moment.

Meetings

Calendar

Meetings can be created in Teams, assigned to a channel, and added to your Outlook calendar. The meeting is available to join by anyone in the organisation, they don’t have to be invited. Notes can be taken during the meeting which become a tab in the channel, and can be used to record decisions from the meeting. The video and audio from a meeting can recorded.

Calls

Teams has VOIP calls to individuals and groups within the organisation (which replaces Skype). I expect Microsoft to add AI to calls in the future to transcribe the contents of the calls to add to the organisational knowledge that Microsoft will be able to surface.

Files

Files added to Teams are stored on SharePoint and surfaced on the Teams interface. Similarly, if you also use OneDrive, but files added to OneDrive are usually in personal storage. Adding files into the Teams file repository removes any issues of availability if the owner leaves the organisation.

Apps

Other Microsoft Apps can be added to tabs in channels

Planner

Planner is one of the Microsoft apps that works well as a Tab in a Channel. If the team does work that changes status, has assignees, has deadlines, etc., then Planner is good tool that can include the information held in the Planner board within Teams rather than a separate external tool. Planner has lots of advantages over Trello for enterprise organisations, including licensing and security considerations, but more importantly for holding all of the organisations information within a single platform,

Adoption

Organisations providing Teams as a product to use is one thing, people across the organisation adopting Teams and getting the best use out of it is something else. The difficulty around adoption will have multiple causes for any organisation but I think an important one is the education around the benefits, both in the short term for users and longer term for the organisation. The short term benefits for users are in the efficiencies that come from working in more collaborative ways, such as on single a document rather than multiple versions, and reliability of files stored in the cloud rather than on a device. The longer term benefits for the organisation are around making knowledge and information available to the whole organisation rather than being trapped in people’s laptops.

It’s not difficult to see the direction Microsoft is heading with their suite of products. They seem to be betting on the future of knowledge-organisations realising that how they manage information, knowledge and intellectual assets is an essential part of the organisation’s competitive advantage, and needing a platform that can enable and empower that. Having all of an organisations information and knowledge on a single platform, that can be surfaced in multiple ways, shared and worked on collaboratively, and analysed by the artificial intelligence of the future, will be vital for large enterprise organisations

Three tricks with Microsoft Planner

Search

There is no search. But you can filter by keywords to get what are effectively search results. Filtering is a better approach than searching as it also enables you to filter by when a card is due, who it’s assigned to, and which bucket it’s in.

Outlook

Planner provides an iCal feed which can be pulled into an Outlook calendar to show as Meeting items. So, if you like using Outlook to manage your time and tasks, you can use this feed to show cards based on their start and due dates. And if the items in Outlook could be coloured (perhaps by bucket or label), then the Outlook calendar would start to be a bit roadmap-y.

Checklist items into cards

Items in a checklist can be promoted to cards by clicking on the up arrow that shows when you hover over the checklist item. The card is created in the same bucket as the card with the checklist but has no associated attributes such as due date, status or assignee.  An improvement on this might be being able to choose to copy and/or set the attributes from the parent card when promoting the checklist item rather than having to go into the card after it has been created.

Microsoft Planner vs. Trello

I love Trello. I’ve been using it for years and have written about how we use it to manage projects. I like how easy it easy to create cards with an email and how well IFTTT works with Trello. I like Butler Bot and all the automation I can use to accomplish system housekeeping. Trello isn’t perfect, and falls down a bit in reporting, but this has never been a big problem, so in many ways it’s as close to perfect as a system could get for my way of working.

I work for an organisation that considers itself a ‘Microsoft house’, which means all of our core infrastructure and software is Microsoft, and that we are encouraged to use the approved software provided by our It department. My digital mindset says use the best tool for the job, but I also understand that using a single enterprise-level ecosystem provides better security (which is essential) and that using whatever third party software you feel like can have legal implications if that company’s terms and conditions don’t allow the software to be used for business purposes for free.

So you see my problem. Using a system that works for me versus using a system that works for the organisation. So, I started playing with Planner, Microsoft’s Trello-like product to see if it could give us the same level of flexibility in managing projects that Trello has but is compliant with organisational policy. Can I turn that ‘versus’ into an ‘and’?

After an hour of playing with Planner, this is what I think:

  • Both are accessible in a browser and both have an android app. This is important to me as I use four different devices and need to be able to use whichever system whenever and however I want.
  • Cards can’t be created in Planner by sending an email like with Trello, but there is a workaround by using Microsoft Flow (Microsoft’s IFTTT) so I have a flow set up that creates a card in Planner for every card created in Trello, which means I can use the good bits from Trello such as creating a card by email and butler bot automation in Planner.
  • Planner has a status for each card of Not started, In progress and Completed. At first I didn’t get why it would have this as there is also a start and due date for each card, but the status drives some of reporting and the Progress view.
  • Both can show cards on a calendar view but do it differently. Trello treats each card as only being able to be on a single day. The card can be moved to tomorrow if you didn’t finish it today but then it won’t still be on what is now yesterday. This means you can’t see how long a card has been worked on for. Planner has a start date and due date for each card which means that when you look at the calendar view the card is shown over the length of time between the start and due date. Both have a week and more view but neither have a year or selectable dates view.
  • Planner has a number of ways of displaying lists of cards whereas Trello only has one way. Trello lists can be titled by the name of the project, with cards being tasks within the project and having due dates, or the lists can be titled To do, Doing, Done with cards being tasks on the lists but with Labels used to group cards on the same project. Planner can switch between views which means lists can be set up for each project (called buckets in Planner) and providing those cards have been given a status of either Not started, In progress or Completed, switching views shows the cards in those three status lists.
  • Both allow a user and multiple users to be assigned to the card, both can have attachments and comments on a card, and both allow cards to be dragged and dropped between lists.
  • Trello doesn’t do any kind of reporting. Planners reporting is limited but it shows how many cards each person has in each state, how many cards are in each state for each bucket, and how many cards over the whole board are in each state.

It’s a close run thing. I’m not aware of anyone else in the organisation using Planner although I’m sure it would be really useful for them, especially as most of them don’t require the same level of flexibility as I do. If Planner had automation and adding cards by email it would win outright. Planners approach to switching between views of lists is really good (even if there is an overhead if selecting the right status, start and end date for each card). I think that Planner is good enough for us to consider moving to using it rather than Trello. And I never thought I’d say that.