Microsoft Sweetens Office 365 Collaboration Options

Think collaboration and you think Google. Maybe. Or Box or Dropbox. You don’t think Office 365 really, even though its enterprise collaboration abilities have greatly improved in the past two years. However, that could change. Microsoft has just made it a lot easier to collaborate using Outlook Web App (OWA).

It is doing that by making it easier to share files using OneDrive for Business. Specifically, it is targeting email attachments and email threads that can lead to all kinds of unpleasant problems around versioning.

Better Version Control

This is a real functional bonus for users of Office 365 and OWA, its webmail client. While it has been possible to exchange files using links through it or OneDrive, it has been a cumbersome process that forced users to either risk losing content through clumsy email exchanges or use a file share and sync product outside of their Microsoft environment.

The big problem: The risk of losing information from poor version control in endless email exchanges.

It's arguably one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to collaborate through email, which is both inefficient for collaboration and downright scary for legal or compliance-related documents.

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Multiply that by all the different services and all the different departments in all the different countries a company may operate in and the problem just becomes unmanageable.

In defense of email, it was never designed for the kind of collaboration that workers expect to be able to do now.

There are many applications out there that are designed for these kind of problems, but they are not Microsoft products. In fact Microsoft competitors in the productivity space are producing many of the products that workers are using to resolve this issue.

Google Docs, for example, lets your whole team update a single document concurrently. Box or Dropbox let anyone make changes in a shared document, albeit one at a time. And in-house social network can help come up with agreements on the best way to go.

Even with Microsoft betting so hard on Office 365 and its associated OneDrive for Business, the current sharing abilities while effective can be cumbersome and don’t include the option of sharing through Outlook or more precisely Outlook Web App, one of the top workplace apps.

Outlook Web Apps Updated

So what will happen with the updates? OneDrive for Business is a personal library intended for storing and organizing work documents. As an integral part of Office 365 or SharePoint Server 2013, it offers workers direct access to files, or address books.

All files that you store in OneDrive for Business are private initially – only you can see them – unless you decide to share them. The result is that users can easily share a file with everyone in their organization by placing it in a sharing folder, for example.

Users can also share files with specified co-workers so they can collaborate on specific projects while those that are signed-in to Office 365 may even be able to share with partners outside the organization, depending on what the organization allows.

You can see the problem coming a mile away here. Put a document into a sharing folder and every one can share it. But what document are users going to work on? What one will they save? How do they let other users know that they have updated a document, or that they have revised the latest version and have decided for whatever reason to work on an earlier version? The list of issues here is enormous. Where does the confusion stop?

The solution is to create a single version and let users work on that single version without creating new versions, or copied versions, or versions that end up stored on desktops across the enterprise.

Microsoft’s solution is to upgrade OWA to tighten the already significant integration between it and OneDrive for Business.

It enables users to share links rather than documents, which enables collaborators to work on a document directly from their inbox and save changes, which are then uploaded as a single versioned document into OneDrive.

The link to the document is sent by email through OWA. When you use OWA to share files stored on OneDrive for Business, recipients in the To: and Cc: lines automatically are automatically given permission to view and edit the file. But it’s also easy to change the permissions on the file directly from the email message.

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This means the people you’re working with will always see the latest changes, and you can avoid confusion over multiple versions. It also allows multiple people to make changes to a single document at the same time using the Office clients or Office Online.

The process of creating these links is straightforward enough and you can find more about it in the blog post announcing the upgrade.

Far Reaching Upgrade

This is no simple upgrade, however, and will reach across Microsoft’s entire productivity space, including Office Graph, which understands what content is important to users and uses that information to create personalized productivity tools.

Office Graph is in turn linked to Delve, which finds information that is not just relevant, but which is also trending about subjects that are of interest to the users concerned.

The new upgrade and features is already being rolled-out to Office 365 users, but all others should have it by the end of next month.

Currently, this OneDrive for Business integration is available in OWA, OWA for iPhone/iPad and OWA for Android phone (pre-release). Microsoft is also working to bring it to the Outlook desktop client in a future version.

While the upgrade is only for existing users of Microsoft products — and isn't likely to persuade users of other products like Google Apps, for example, to jump ship — it adds to the already substantial functionally of Office 365 and pushes it deeper into the collaboration space.

Title image by Noreen Seebacher.