Anyone using Microsoft Outlook as their primary corporate email knows about Distribution Lists. They allow users to write or forward their emails to a group of users, whether it is a single department, members of the same office, or the whole company. Distribution Lists have been a key feature of Microsoft Exchange Server for years and have been essential for team collaboration and cross-group communication in the enterprise. For the information workers who spend the majority of their day in Outlook, membership in multiple Distribution Lists are common and usage is second nature.
Distribution Lists are limited
However, the venerable Distribution List is also a feature that is limited when seen in the context of a cloud-first and mobile-first workplace. Blasting an email out to a group of people asking for information feels quaint to Millennial workers—especially when there's no good option to collaborate using a cloud-based wiki or organize face-to-face sessions. As more and more companies move from on-premises perpetual licenses of Microsoft Office to Office 365 to leverage all of its cloud collaboration enhancements, employees not only want but expect more from the Distribution List feature. But with so much time and effort put into creating and maintaining a groupwide (or companywide) Distribution List, nobody wants to throw away their lists and start over with an all-new collaboration method.
Office 365 Groups to the rescue
The good news is that Microsoft has created an upgraded version of Distribution Lists called Office 365 Groups. It's a built-in feature for every Office
365 for Business plan that has all the functionality of the old email Distribution List feature but adds new collaboration functionality such as:
- Shared inbox – A distinct upgrade from Distribution Lists, the shared inbox for Office 365 Groups is fully searchable. The advantage here is that your Group's shared inbox creates a living archive of the Group's messages. Newcomers to the Group can search or scroll back through the history to get up to speed quickly on what's been previously posted. If your users still want the Group messages to appear in their personal inbox (which is how it worked with Distribution Lists), then they can subscribe to the Group by clicking the "Membership" button on the ribbon in Outlook
- Shared files library – Rather than relying upon individual file attachments that could easily get lost in a Distribution List, every Office 365 Group has a SharePoint files library. This is useful because it creates a centralized cloud-based repository for your users to store, share, and collaborate on documents, workbooks, presentations, images or any other kind of file they need to work on
- Shared calendar – Perfect for scheduling collaboration sessions among Group members, the shared calendar enables you to post events related to your specific Office 365 Group. The old way of doing this for a Distribution List required creating an event in your personal Outlook calendar and then sending it to members of the Distribution List. But using the shared calendar feature in Office 365 means that each member who has subscribed to the group is automatically invited to events posted to the calendar. These Group events can also appear on members' personal calendars if they wish
- Shared OneNote notebook – An incredibly powerful new feature for Office 365 Groups, the automatically-shared OneNote notebook enables Group members to collect and collaborate on information in a single, unified location. One of the most common uses for the shared OneNote notebook is to create an easily-updated wiki with frequently asked questions and other group-specific resources. This is an important feature for software development teams, content creators, and any other group where sharing so-called "tribal knowledge" is key to onboarding new employees
- Discoverable content – All new Office 365 Groups created inside your company are marked as public by default. The idea is to encourage cross-group collaboration. Rather than obscuring information in digital silos around your company, Group content is now easy for other people in your organization to discover and review. Of course, you can always switch the Group to private, which hides the contents from non-members and requires the Group owner to approve any requests to join. And it's important to note that "public" doesn't mean anyone outside your company can find or access any information in your Office 365 Group unless you want to give them guest access
- Guest access – Granting contacts outside of your organization access to an email Distribution List was possible prior to Office 365, but all they got was email. However, guest access with Office 365 Groups enables external users guests access to email conversations, files, and even the shared OneNote notebook. From a cybersecurity standpoint, Office 365 Groups are inherently secure because they require authentication through your company's Azure Active Directory to access; reducing the danger of having anyone with guest access to your Office 365 Group (either accidentally or maliciously) poking around in your corporate documents stored in your shared SharePoint and OneNote resources
- Self-service group creation – Before Office 365, starting and managing a new Distribution List
required a formal request to your IT department. But with Office 365 Groups, users can now create new groups and manage members on their own. You
can control which users in the organization are allowed to create and manage Groups (for example, not allowing that one employee you know is likely
to give the Group a tasteless name or be overly generous with granting guest access outside of your company) but this is the most obvious upgrade from the old way of doing things with Distribution Lists
Is your IT ready to move to Office 365 Groups?
Of course, this doesn't mean that your company's IT department is completely removed from Office 365 Groups. If your company just recently upgraded to Office 365 and previously used Distribution Lists, then your IT department will have to upgrade your existing Distribution Lists to Office 365 Groups.Keeping your directory under control is a concern of every administrator. While the process is relatively simple, upgrades can only be performed on existing cloud-managed, simple, non-nested distribution lists. So, if your company has a distribution list that either has child groups or is a member of another group, is a list with members but no owner, or is a dynamic distribution list, then you're IT department will have extra work to do.
An IT administrator can determine which of your company's existing Distribution Lists are eligible for the quick and easy upgrade to Office 365 Groups
by running this PowerShell command:
Link your siloed data with Office 365 Groups
Upgrading your company's Distribution Lists to Office 365 Groups enables a new level of collaboration for your organization. As more companies adopt Microsoft Teams and unlock the power of business analytics through PowerBI, linking and integrating information available through Office 365 Groups will become a necessity.
Amaxra consultants have years of real-world experience with cloud upgrades and Distribution List migration. We have successfully deployed Office 365 for every sized business,
from tiny startups to large multinational enterprises. If your company wants to know more about the practical ways Office 365 Groups can enhance
your business productivity, then we should talk.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 425 708 8841 if you have any questions or comments on this blog.