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The passing last week of Ray Tomlinson – the man who put the "@" in your email address – gave me pause for thought. Email has been a "killer app" through every architecture change (mainframe, mini, LAN, client-server, Web) and device manifestation (terminal, personal computer, PDA, smartphone, tablet) for well over three decades, and every era has presented the IT department with a new challenge, such as interoperability, spam, mobility, and security. Today, however, the challenge presenting itself is one that the user must tackle: how do we control the noise and distraction coming from our inbox so that we can focus and get things done?

It's time to stop abusing the corporate email system

Corporate email has been big business for well over two decades, with Microsoft eventually gaining the top spot with Outlook and Exchange Server. The first release of Exchange Server was in March 1996, but the most visible sign of change over the last 20 years has been on the client side, where email has become the dominant medium for ad hoc communication and collaboration. Microsoft's latest business email client, Outlook 2016, introduces new file attachment and search capabilities, but it is the support for Office 365 Outlook Groups that offers enterprises incremental value.

Outlook Groups is Microsoft's response to the changing nature of workplace communication and collaboration, one that is frequently mobile-first, team-focused, and ad hoc in nature. Outlook Groups are available to organizations with an Office 365 subscription, and can be easily set up by nontechnical employees (assuming the feature hasn't been disabled by the system administrator). Groups are purposefully geared toward a narrow range of activities within small teams, which means that SharePoint sites are still the place to go if a more scalable, customizable digital workspace is required, and where participation from external parties is expected or necessary.

Outlook Groups provide a space for shared conversations and files, plus a group calendar and OneNote notebook. Sometime soon, groups will also get a "plan," courtesy of the new lightweight planning application that Microsoft has in testing. Integrations with other Office 365 offerings, such as Power BI and Skype for Business, are also in development. The functionality offered by Outlook Groups varies across endpoints (Outlook 2016 PC and Mac, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone), with the desktop browser offering the most complete experience.

Anyone familiar with Slack or Cisco Spark will find this description of Outlook Groups somewhat familiar, because these products are also geared to small teams collaborating through shared files and conversations using a mobile-first, cloud-based approach. Slack's value is derived, at least in part, from the many tools and applications it integrates with, while Cisco Spark is promoted as an all-in-one business communications service, blurring the line between synchronous and asynchronous communications. Using Spark and a room-based metaphor, video calling and chat can be mixed with more asynchronous collaboration activities, such as a document review process.

Groups, Slack, and Spark are designed for the kinds of collaborative activities that employees regularly perform, usually ineffectively, via email. Each offering has its pros and cons, favoring particular workstyles, activities, and engagement models. So, if you're a habitual email collaborator, sooner or later an invite will arrive to participate in one of these workspaces. That invite will arrive by email of course.


Further reading

2016 Trends to Watch: Employee Engagement, Productivity, and Collaboration, IT0021-000145 (February 2016)

"Coming to a device near you: the enterprise digital workplace," IT0021-000150 (February 2016)

"Re-platform the knowledge worker or they will do it themselves," IT0021-000141 (January 2016)

Ovum Decision Matrix: Selecting an Online Meeting Product, IT0021-000112 (November 2015)

Collective energy – making the most of an engaged, collaborative workforce, IT0021-000129 (November 2015)


Richard Edwards, Principal Research Analyst, Enterprise Productivity & Mobility

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