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The Latest Developments In Microsoft Office 365

We’re not starting with SharePoint, the reason being that most of our customers have been all over Teams for one reason or another, sometimes good and sometimes bad!

I’m sure that you know what Microsoft Teams is about by now; Slack challenger, Skype for Business replacement etc. Eighteen months ago, we started a Microsoft Teams POC with a client to see if we could extend it beyond Team communication and collaboration, covering enterprise search and insights. The vision was sound, but we found that Teams had potential but was severely held back.

  • The search experience was mixed, it didn’t cover all Office 365 content sources (and we couldn’t fix this even with hybrid), results were lacking intelligence and refinement.
  • Connectivity to other Line of Business (LOB) systems, authentication became a nightmare, browser complexities left, right and centre. Extensibility was limited with most integration being simple links to open other tools in a new window.
  • Strong adoption processes, this was the biggest issue for our largest clients. You were pretty much forced to switch Teams on as “self-service”. So be it was the decision and within 3 months business users had created 1000’s of Teams site (which creates an Office 365 group and SharePoint site in the background), potentially breaking any content governance you have in place.

Fast forward 12 months, and the news is much, much better.

  • Teams can now be managed programmatically through the Graph API, so building a Flow (other workflow services available), create a script or similar to provision a new Team and adding a bunch of users can become part of existing operational processes without much effort. You can “sideload” your custom LOB app interfaces through the Graph API as well, providing one way of avoiding manual setup tasks a Team owner typically has to make.
  • Teams sites can be built from existing templates, so set up one Team site, add all the necessary tabs, channels etc. and then use that as a standard business template.
  • There is now direct support for loading things like SPFx into Teams, so if a development team have been following best practice for the last couple of years, you now have the options to show those apps in a Teams tab as well as a SharePoint site.
  • Same above for PowerApps, Power BI and Planner apps, so Teams starts to become this “one-stop shop” for all things across your business;
  • Search:
  • Microsoft Search will cover Teams by Q2 2019. Expect a much more comprehensive search experience, that not only allows you to search within Teams across all your Office 365 content (with built-in Cognitive and Graph enrichment), but also allows for Teams content to be discovered in other Office 365 services and Bing.
  • Inline translation feature, conversations are translated on the fly.
  • Guest access for external users that is intuitive to use.
  • Immersive reader feature aimed at education and the visually impaired.
  • First Line Worker processes (Coming soon)
  • Teams to include, what can be described as a business version of WhatsApp, so if for example, your customer-facing employees are bending business acceptable use policies as they are seeking to use more familiar apps to be more productive. Teams could provide an alternative answer. Don’t expect it to perfect, but you do get the obvious benefits of keeping business chat on a supported platform.

For us, Teams becomes a massive opportunity for a business to get their real-time communications flowing.

SharePoint Online and On-Prem

Back on to the main product that sparked our conversation. I am sure that the SharePoint product team would argue the point, but for the last couple of years, it does seem that SharePoint has taken a back seat. Lots of other Office 365 things are using SharePoint for their own needs such as Teams, but the base product has undergone significant UI and functionality improvements:

Modern Experience, yep that’s what it’s known as!

SharePoint Online and now SharePoint 2019, has had a SharePoint v2 UI sitting alongside the classic look and feel since mid-2017. Unfortunately, Modern experience was significantly lacking the support of tried and trusted web parts and extensibility, so most developments continued using existing paths, until now. The modern experience is now at a mature enough point to be considered for most SharePoint based solutions. In the last 12 months, there have been significant improvements including:

  • Responsive, full page design. This is one of the most eye-catching parts of the new experience, the ability to display content the full width of the page, which has been extremely popular in websites over the last few years.
  • Custom themes, the customisation capabilities have been significantly improved recently, you now can truly brand/theme your modern sites. Also, it’s worth noting that out of the box themes meet all accessibility standards.
  • Lists, libraries have smart new features, such as multi-file download, clipboard paste directly into a document library, and document pinning.
  • Modern site templates, you now can fully template a modern site and use that template to provision new modern sites. So, things like lists, libraries, theming and site configuration can automatically be configured and set up on your new modern sites. You also now can hook up Flows to this provisioning process, so for example when a new site is created using the template and email or alert is sent out to a group of users. This truly opens the door to full automation, allowing no end of processes to be started via Flow.

The Graph makes it seem smarter SharePoint is reading my mind

Wherever you go in SharePoint, whatever you may be interacting with (People, sites, content), those signals are recorded in the O365 Graph (and have been for a few years now). Over the last year SharePoint is making more use of the Graph in smarter ways to serve up content and people automatically. Algorithms and analytics have been strengthened to include inferences, the rate of interactions and trending; it’s not just showing you the things you last modified or visited anymore. The Graph APIs are also a lot better, so you can now use this rich data in your custom applications.

SharePoint Features using the Graph

It’s no good having the Graph if you’re not using it! There are now new SharePoint features that help you achieve that personalised experience, all making use of the Graph. Features showing recommendations, suggestions, frequently accessed sites and documents are present on most out of the box Modern pages and site templates. The Newsfeed feature has lots of potential. It may not be 100% fit for a traditional comms team, but this may change with topic aware context that is due soon. You will notice contextual search suggestions simply by hovering on the Search box, for example, recommendations that show stuff close to you, but also allows you to discover through inference.

SPFx, the SharePoint framework

This could so easily have been at the top of our list. For too long developing on SharePoint (especially when delivering a clean, modern UI) meant going way beyond out of the box and into the world of frameworks. Regular Dev talk in Teams was around the merits of React over Angular, Sass vs Less. Every 6 months there was something better and easier. Keeping your dev standards simple, wasn’t errrr… not simple. SPFx has matured significantly over the last 12 months (Microsoft have built the Modern experience using it) and now is THE standard. For us, any new SharePoint development should be making use of it.

Some other good news

Maybe this was beyond the last year, but one significant improvement that wasn’t really announced (as far as I can tell) has been the adjustment of Lists and libraries view thresholds. You can now query for all records in a list or library without hitting the 5000-item list view threshold. There are limitations though, i.e. Your view cannot use a filter and you still only can have 12 lookup columns. However, if you just want a bulk dump of data into Excel, for example, you’re in a much better position.

Microsoft Search

Over the past 12 months, Microsoft has continued to improve search across Office 365. Historically Search has promised so much, but never fulfilled, for example from an application development perspective, search offered a great “discovery/query” mechanism, due to its reach across sites and services, but go back 24-18 months and we at Ntegra would have been hesitant to recommend search for any near real-time-based applications/processes, purely due to the level of service on offer with frequent crawling lag, missing results and other issues leading to a poor application experience. However, over the last 12 months, both the service and functionality has improved. Crawled content is now enriched with

Well as you can see it’s been an extremely busy time for people in the Office 365 space, a lot to learn and even more to keep an eye on. Hopefully, you got a good idea on how much the Office 365 space has changed recently, and what you should be watching out for soon.

If you want to read more Microsoft provides a lot of detail about their O365 roadmap on the “Microsoft 365 Roadmap” site (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-365/roadmap) and that individual product teams blog and tweet frequently about feature updates. These are all invaluable resources, but in our opinion, nothing beats working closely with a client, sharing real-world experience of what Office 365 can deliver.

To find out how Ntegra and Microsoft 365 can help your digital environment, contact us.

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