Communication Breakdown!

Office 365 used to be a pretty simple toolset. You had your native Office apps, Outlook, Skype for Business, and SharePoint. Communicating was straight-forward: lengthy discussions were best served over email, and quick questions were easily serviced through Skype for Business (nee Lync) and the presence-integrated IM capabilities. Documents lived in SharePoint, and...that was really about it. It worked because it was the way things had always worked, except for that nice little IM bit.

But as I have moved through my career, I've encountered so many different work styles that rely on different forms and media for communication that it's been difficult to get one concise set of tools to work for every style. That's a challenge for me, because I view inter-personal communications in two streams: "official" (corporate, work-related) and "unofficial" (personal).

For official communications, I have traditionally done well with email, but I'm guilty of using it as file storage. I accept IM as official because it is explicitly addressed to my work account. I do NOT do well with SMS, principally because I see it as a very personal communication medium for keeping up with family members and friends. Also because I am over 40 and could not stand early SMS typing. In fact if you send me a work-related SMS, I will copy the contents into an email and reply there. SMS is unofficial.

I spend plenty of time on Facebook, but the constant scroll of it drives me nuts: I used to spend an hour trying to find the last message I'd seen in the previous visit and read up from there. Now I just accept that I'm going to miss 90% of what people post. That's not communicating, and that made it difficult for me to adopt Yammer as an official medium.

In fact, I had gotten so accustomed to operating ONLY within IM and email that I became extremely resistant to any other avenues. And it makes sense: at some point you have too many places to go to get to your communications. Too many applications open. Too many opportunities to miss something really important.

Yammer and Skype for Business, and even SharePoint, gave me the ability to receive missed communications in Outlook. That saved my bacon more than once, and even enabled my boss to send me an IM reminding me to sign in to Skype for Business. Technology solved its own problem.

But now we have Teams, OneNote, real-time co-authoring of files with chat built into the file, Outlook, Skype for Business, SharePoint, Planner, Yammer, Sway, and it's a sea of "official" channels.

How in the world do you keep on top of it all?

I've been conducting a number of Customer Immersion Experiences over the past few months. In these sessions, we bring in a number of devices with built-in personas and challenge a small group of users to really explore the deeper capabilities of Office communication tools. We typically explore some email scenarios, some Skype for Business and Teams scenarios, do some real-time co-authoring, and sometimes a bit of self-led exploration. But the number one question I get every time is: "how do I know which tool to use?"

So in order of conversation-scale, let's look at which tool best suits which task...but from a post-email world-view:

1:1 or 1:FEW

For the most part, quick conversation is easiest in Skype for Business. Whether it's IM, a video call, or a white-boarding session, 1-on-1 conversations are more natural, and adding users makes it easy to keep a single conversation constrained to a single medium. Meetings benefit similarly, and the contents of all can be saved and shared as necessary.


Skype for Business meetings are limited to 250 users. That's a Good Thing, because at that size it's really tough to keep control. IM gets lost, competing microphones cause huge feedback loops, and in an office where everybody decides to just call in from their own desk, there's genuine concern about the impact to the Internet circuit. Don't even think about trying to whiteboard with 250 of your closest friends.

Skype Meeting Broadcast steps in to take the participant limit to 10,000. This format eliminates participant interaction, so it's not great for collaborative meetings, but it's great for delivering the corpany-wide meetings or external facing briefings. I do my webinars in Skype Meeting Broadcast, which we have configured to automatically save and publish the content for future playback.


Depending on the nature of the conversation and the constituent members, either Teams or Yammer may be the right choice.

If the constituents are an entire department, or indeed the whole company, consider Yammer. I think of Yammer as a broadcast solution for text, sort of a targeted Twitter / Facebook blend. Exploring Yammer is a great way to see generally what's going on in the company. Who's working on what? What are general business and department initiatives?

But if the conversation members cross departmental boundaries, I always default to Teams. When I submit a proposal, it has to be negotiated by Sales, implemented by Engineering, and supported by Managed Services. Keeping track of what's happened with a project can be complicated, and the people working on the project will change as the project rolls through different phases. But ideally all of the work should remain associated with it, and anybody trying to support it at any phase should have access to everything that has led up to that point. With integrations into CRM and really just about every facet of Office 365, it's easy to keep the business and financial users happy while also delivering the relevant data to the next set of engineers.


So why did I ignore email? Well, email is still perfectly valid, but I honestly receive very little of it these days, and when I do, it's typically pointing me at data that now resides somewhere else. Corporate policies may be sent out by email, but they're stored in SharePoint Online. Clients may want to collaborate, but usually they'll want to schedule a meeting or share information from the previous meeting. In essence, email has become metadata for me. It's a great place for aggregating and tracking, but it has become far less of a collaborative medium.

And you can see that I don’t really use a lot of the other tools I mentioned earlier. At least not for principal communication. I would never advocate using the chat embedded in real-time co-authoring for anything substantive. I’m exploring Sway right now, and may in fact begin converting future blog posts to the more-engaging format.

What did I miss? What tools do you use to collaborate that may exist in different channels, and how have you been successful at scaling them?