Enterprise Social in Office 365: Part 1 - Introduction

Office 365 is a huge collection of enterprise services, and it is only getting bigger. One consequence of this constant growth in services is an overlap of functionality. An example that I have been noticing recently is Enterprise Social features. Microsoft’s drive to enable “Enterprise Social” has resulted in a significant number of Office 365 features providing group collaboration functionality. More and more I am hearing customers ask “Should I be using distribution lists, Groups, persistence chat, or Yammer?”

In this series of articles I want to examine the current Enterprise Social features in Office 365 and give you a way to decided which feature is best for you situation.

The first problem I ran into when thinking about putting together this series is one of terminology. “Enterprise Social” is the catch all name I came up with for the group of features we are going to talk about, but what does that mean? For the purpose of this series Enterprise Social refers to Office 365 features that are intended to be used for groups of people to share information.

“Enterprise Social” is not the only terminology problem I have to overcome for this article. One of the first features we are going to examine is Groups. The word “groups” is way over-used in the world of Office 365. Yammer groups, security groups, mail-enabled distribution groups, dynamic distribution groups, universal mail-enabled security groups, and several other objects all share similar names. I’ll make every effort to clear up this confusion though out the series. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.

Let’s get into the mean of the subject. The first thing to do is compile a list of Office 365 features that we want to examine. I’ll be focusing on the following features:

  • Yammer

  • Video

  • Delve

  • Sites

  • OneDrive for Business

  • Site Mailbox

  • Public Folders

  • Groups

With those features in mind, we need to determine is how are we going to “rate” each one.

I wanted to come up with a consistent and fair way of rating each feature. Below is a list of the important factors I have come up with for measuring these features against each other.

  • Discoverability – Is data easily discovered by users?

  • Access control – Do both users and administrators have ways to control who can access data

  • Ease of use – Is this feature easy for users to use?

  • Flexibility – Can the tool be used for multiple purposes, or is it specifically designed for a single use?

  • Targeted audience – What is the targeted audience of the tool? Is the audience static? Is that audience narrowly focused, or broadly focused?

  • Time sensitivity – Is the information I am sharing time sensitive?

  • Hybrid functionality – Does the feature function across both on-premises and Office 365? Are their functionality differences between the two?

  • Compliance – How well does each feature fit into a corporate compliance strategy?

With six Enterprise Social features measured against eight factors, we can quickly run into an incomprehensible mess if we are not careful.

In an attempt to make things clear, I am going to give each feature a poor, average, or excellent rating for each factor. At the end, I’ll put together the data into a few different graphs and it’ll be up to you to decide which feature best fits your Enterprise Social requirements.

Let’s start off with an examination of Distribution Lists.

Distribution Lists

Distributions Lists are not really an “Enterprise Social” feature, but I’m going to include them here as more of a baseline to measure the functionality of other features against.

In order to avoid confusion, I went with distribution lists instead of distribution groups. In many cases the two names are interchangeable, although in my mind distribution groups refers more to the Active Directory object that enables the functionality and distribution lists refer to the object in GAL that users select. That may be a fairly fine distinction, but it gets us away from using the word group to refer to this feature.

Almost as long as there has been email, there has been distribution lists. Distribution lists are a way for a single author to communicate to a message to a set audience without the author having to specify each individual member of the audience.

Distribution lists are strictly an email feature with no overlap into SharePoint or Lync, while most of the true Enterprise Social features we’ll examine in this series will have some level of overlap between products.

Management of distribution lists in a hybrid Exchange organization can be a bit tricky. Deploying Hybrid Exchange requires the deployment of a directory synchronization solution so that your on-premises Active Directory is the source of authority for Azure Active Directory and Exchange Online. The result of this configuration is that once a user’s mailbox is migrated into Exchange Online that users will no longer have the ability to manage on-premises distribution lists from within Outlook. There are several work arounds for this issue, which I have discussed in a previous article.

The major limitation of distribution lists is that messages are sent to the distribution list’s membership once. If membership of the distribution lists changes over time new additions to the list will not receive messages that we sent to the list before they joined. This means that distribution lists are not a good solution for building an intuitional knowledge base.

Here is how distribution lists stack up in our ratings system

Discoverability: poor

If you’re a member of a distribution list at the time a specific message is sent to that distribution list, then you’ll “discover’ the content as it arrives in your inbox. If you not a member, however, you will never receive that message. There is no way for someone newly added to a distribution lists to see message sent to the list before they joined.

Access Control: average

The current version of Exchange has features that allow for both administrators and users to be able to control the membership of distribution lists. The problem is that in a hybrid Exchange organization these access control features become much more complicated to manage.

Ease of use: excellent

Distribution lists are pretty much the model for ease of use.

Flexibility: poor

Distribution lists are great for sending email to a predefined audience, but not much else.

Targeted audience: average

Distribution lists certainly reach the specified audience. The downside is that audience is identified at the time the message is sent. Messages sent before a specific user joins a distribution list will not be available to that user.

Time sensitivity: excellent

Distribution lists get the message to the intended audience in nearly real time.

Hybrid functionality: average

Distribution lists work on-premises, in Office 365, and in hybrid organizations. Some of the control features of distributions lists become a challenge to manage in hybrid deployments, but with some good planning these limitations can be overcome.

Compliance: excellent

Because distribution lists send standard email messages, all the standard Exchange compliance features work against messages sent to distribution lists. The only consideration specific to distribution lists is if your organization needs to capture the membership of a distribution lists at the time specific messages are sent. Doing so have traditionally required journaling to be turned on, but recent updates have allowed group membership to be captured with in-place holds as well.


In this series I’ll be using distribution lists as the baseline to examine the other Enterprise Social features of Office 365 and see how they stack up. By the end of this series, I hope to have assembled a good comparison of these features to help you make more informed choices about how you’ll use Office 365 in your organization.

If you have questions, or feel there is a feature I left of the list, please let me know below in the comments.



Continue this series in Part 2