Microsoft is making significant enhancements to content and collaboration capabilities in modern SharePoint, placing SharePoint Online at the center of its Office 365 content/collaboration value proposition. This post provides an overview of the new capabilities, contrasting them with earlier content/collaboration features in traditional SharePoint (primarily on-premises SharePoint Server). The new capabilities and underlying architecture in modern SharePoint are sufficiently advanced, relative to traditional SharePoint, that it’s not a stretch to think of them as two different (and complementary) SharePoint platforms, sharing a common brand name and some integration options but otherwise designed to address two different eras of enterprise content/collaboration requirements.
Content/Collaboration Capability Categories
To establish a framework for comparing traditional and modern SharePoint capabilities, it’s helpful to start with a set of common capability categories:
Content encompasses document and page management and sharing, including search and discovery services
Lists generally contain more data-centric than document-centric items
Conversations capture topic/response threads in a variety of contexts
Collaborative apps automate content-based processes
Workspaces combine some or all of the above for specific project, process, or team needs
Social actions, popularized in services such as Facebook, make it easy for people to like, follow, comment on, and share content
Before diving into the details, it’s important to note that, as of early September 2016, the modern SharePoint apps, tools, and services are something of a work in progress. Microsoft has made considerable progress delivering on new capabilities introduced at Ignite 2015 (in early May 2015) and at its May 2016 Future of SharePoint event, for example, but some of the underlying technologies, such as the new SharePoint Framework, are still rapidly evolving. This dynamic has created some market confusion, as the modern page, part, and intranet features unveiled at Ignite 2015 aren’t yet fully available, blurring the boundaries between traditional and modern SharePoint. However, we expect most of the modern SharePoint capabilities described in this post will be generally available within a few months of the Ignite 2016 conference, establishing a much clearer distinction between the two SharePoint generations.
It’s also important to note that modern SharePoint does not refer exclusively to SharePoint Online (i.e., SharePoint in Office 365). Microsoft already offers a variety of hybrid integration options, for example, and has announced plans to make modern SharePoint technologies such as SharePoint Framework available for use with SharePoint Server 2016 deployments as well as SharePoint Online (sometime in 2017). For the purposes of this post, however, modern SharePoint currently refers primarily to SharePoint Online within Office 365.
A final context-setting consideration: Microsoft is fully committed to its cloud-first/mobile-first strategy, and that strategic shift has driven many of the new modern SharePoint advances. With traditional SharePoint, for example, it wasn’t unusual to see SharePoint capabilities that were only available for PC clients; but modern SharePoint is optimized for cloud services and has first-class support for the leading mobile device platforms, including non-Microsoft platforms and browsers. Although some of the modern content/collaboration capabilities will eventually also be available for on-premises and hybrid SharePoint deployment, as previously noted, it’s safe to assume that Microsoft’s latest innovations will continue to appear first — and sometimes exclusively – on Office 365, and will offer full support for leading mobile device platforms from the start.
The next section of this post will take a quick tour through the six capability categories, followed by a brief summary of the implications for enterprises formulating their Office 365 deployment and migration plans.
Modern SharePoint includes a wide range of content management capabilities, both directly, in a new page/part content model, and in conjunction with other Microsoft innovations such as Office Online, expanded OneNote integration, and the ability to consolidate document management and sharing in OneDrive and SharePoint sites. Traditional SharePoint is useful for a variety of document-related scenarios, but its page/part model and primarily server-side-managed page generation model create some content-related constraints and complexity, especially for cloud-first/mobile-first scenarios.
Consider this page-authoring example, from a recent Microsoft blog post titled New Capabilities in SharePoint Online Team Sites Including Integration with Office 365 Groups:
This is a dramatically simplified and modernized page-authoring experience compared to traditional SharePoint, and it’s based on the SharePoint Framework, with a responsive and adaptive client-side environment (see Microsoft’s post The SharePoint Framework—an open and connected platform for an overview of SharePoint Framework and its significance). The modern web parts make it easy to add a variety of content components to a SharePoint page, including the ability to embed Office documents that are rendered by Office Online – that is, they can be live and interactive, rather than file attachments, screen shots, or thumbnail images. By making it easy to share cloud-managed documents, content-based collaboration with modern SharePoint also means using a single source of truth (a single underlying document, for example) rather than creating copies of files that can easily get out of sync. Since the Office apps now also support concurrent authoring and versioning, multiple people can collectively work on the same documents without worrying about update conflicts.
Modern SharePoint sites are automatically optimized for mobile devices as well; here’s an example (from the Microsoft blog post previously referenced) of the same page viewed on a smartphone with the SharePoint Mobile app:
The embedded PowerPoint presentation used in this example can be viewed in its entirety on mobile devices as well as PCs, again working with a single source and using the same responsive and adaptive SharePoint Framework technologies used in the modern SharePoint client for PCs.
Every modern SharePoint team site also has an associated OneNote notebook, adding another powerful option for page-oriented content/collaboration scenarios. OneNote can be thought of as a wiki platform superset in many respects, with rich native client apps as well as the ability to work with pages in browser clients via OneNote Online. OneNote also has a fine-grained update notification model, making it easy to see others’ updates within pages (without having to manually compare page versions), simplifying content-based collaboration.
Microsoft also recently unveiled a new Visio Online app, so it will be possible to embed and directly interact with Visio diagrams within modern SharePoint pages, along with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote content. The modern SharePoint web part model also makes it easy to embed other types of dynamic content, such as Power BI dashboards and videos from YouTube and other services.
Office Graph and Delve provide another major modern SharePoint advance for content management and sharing. The Office Graph-based search and discovery services in SharePoint and Delve make it easy to find content regardless of which app/service was used to capture the content. The search results show all content to which you have access privileges, so you no longer need to be burdened with thinking about the content container type when searching. Office 365 also uses predictive analytics based on Office Graph, so in many cases you’ll be proactively alerted to potentially useful content you might not have otherwise known about.
Overall, modern SharePoint’s content-related capabilities represent a huge advance, compared to the corresponding capabilities in traditional SharePoint.
Traditional SharePoint has long been popular for a range of list management needs, in part because alternative list-oriented apps and services were, in the past, often more cumbersome and costly. If you needed to manage a list of office equipment or open vacation requests, for example, it was generally easier to manage the lists in traditional SharePoint rather than a database management system (DBMS). The list capabilities were somewhat constrained, however, both in terms of storage limits and by a user experience based on the traditional SharePoint server-side page generation model.
Modern SharePoint offers several significant new capabilities for list management. Consider this example, from a Microsoft blog post titled Modern SharePoint Lists Are Here:
The new list user experience is more modern and responsive and adaptive, again thanks to the new SharePoint Framework, and is optimized for today’s cloud-first/mobile-first working world. Lists are fully supported in the SharePoint Mobile apps, for example, so no extra work is required to make list-oriented content securely accessible on mobile devices.
The modern SharePoint page and part model also greatly simplifies working with lists managed in other apps and services. You can embed Excel workbooks containing lists, for example, and directly interact with them in SharePoint pages (using Excel Online). From a user experience point of view, that can be as simple as embedding a reference to a shared Excel workbook stored in a SharePoint team site or OneDrive.
You can also work with lists managed in external systems, including DBMSs and cloud database services such as Azure SQL Database, via the ability to embed data-driven dashboards built with Power BI. Modern database apps and services are much less costly and complex than earlier generations, making it easier to use a full-blown database service when appropriate, rather than trying to use more content-centric SharePoint lists for scenarios that are more data-centric (often involving more complex, multi-list/table data models and very large data volumes).
Overall, modern SharePoint both directly and indirectly – by making it easier to seamlessly embed reports and dashboards from other modern tools such as Power BI – greatly expands upon the list-oriented capabilities in traditional SharePoint.
Apps and services focused on facilitating effective conversations have evolved considerably since traditional SharePoint was introduced, with its relatively basic discussion capabilities, more than 15 years ago. Exchange public folders were also routinely used to address conversational needs in traditional on-premises deployments.
Office 365 and modern SharePoint offer a variety of conversation-oriented options that fully address today’s conversation-related requirements:
Office 365 Groups conversations, based on Exchange Online but seamlessly integrated into Groups workspaces, make it easy to create and manage conversations associated with group- or project-level scenarios. Groups conversations are optimized for Outlook, and can be considered a significant update to Exchange public folders. For users who prefer to use Outlook for conversations, Office 365 Groups are an obvious choice.
Skype is Microsoft’s strategic focus for group chat channels, for the types of scenarios that have been recently addressed by start-ups such as Slack. While many people think of Skype as more of a personal tool for text messaging and voice/video communication, it can also be used for group- or project-level persistent chat needs.
Yammer is Microsoft’s primary focus for enterprise social networking, and it offers a Facebook-like activity stream interface for tracking enterprise- or group-level conversation and activity updates.
Traditional SharePoint discussions can also still be used, although they should probably be considered primarily an option for backward compatibility when migrating traditional SharePoint sites to modern SharePoint sites.
Microsoft introduced a conversations as a platform strategy at its Build 2016 conference, extending Skype and Office 365 Group conversations with the ability to integrate with a wide range of back-end services. If you want to follow social media for enterprise or competitive news tracking, for example, an Office 365 Connector can be easily configured to monitor Twitter and create updates with links to related news. Skype’s connector architecture supports the use of messaging bots for a wide range of scenarios, addressing market dynamics that have been popularized in apps/services such as Slack and Facebook Messenger. For more details on these topics, see our blog post A More Conversational and Compelling Office 365.
If you’re starting to feel a bit overwhelmed by the range of conversation capabilities in Office 365, don’t panic: by using Office Graph-based search apps such as Delve, you’ll be able to search and discover conversational content to which you have access, regardless of the app used to capture the conversation in the first place.
Overall, the conversational capabilities offered in Office 365 and modern SharePoint collectively represent a multifaceted advance relative to traditional SharePoint discussions.
Traditional SharePoint has long been a popular platform for addressing collaborative app needs ranging from basic document-oriented workflows to more elaborate business processes involving programmatic business logic (such as complex equipment requisition request handling or elaborate human resources processes). As with the data-centric list-oriented scenarios previously discussed, however, traditional SharePoint has also often been selected for app scenarios that could have been more effectively addressed with more general-purpose app dev tools, because, in the past, the more general-purpose tools were more complex and costly. In other words, traditional SharePoint was often used as a path-of-least-resistance app platform, even when it wasn’t an ideal form-follows-function fit, because it was already deployed and familiar to enterprise developers.
Office 365 and modern SharePoint include several new options for collaborative apps, addressing the needs of both power users and professional developers while also making it possible for SharePoint apps to fully address today’s cloud-first/mobile-first world.
One important consideration to keep in mind with Office 365 and modern SharePoint is that many business scenarios that required custom app dev in traditional SharePoint can now be addressed with new Office 365 apps and services that don’t require any custom development work. For project and activity management needs, for example, the new Office 365 Planner tool can often eliminate the need to create custom apps, and Delve Analytics can be used for organizational and personal analytics scenarios that previously required custom app development. Our blog post New Opportunities in Activity Management and Organizational Analytics provides more details on these new Office 365 capabilities.
For enterprise app scenarios that entail the use of custom forms and business logic, traditional SharePoint developers have typically used SharePoint forms, InfoPath, and SharePoint Designer. Traditional SharePoint forms have limitations on mobile devices, however, and both InfoPath and SharePoint Designer have been retired. Modern SharePoint instead integrates Microsoft’s new Flow and PowerApps tools, making it possible to more easily address a wide range of collaborative app needs with a model that also automatically supports mobile devices.
Here’s a snapshot of some Flow templates:
This approach, popularized by consumer-oriented services such as IFTTT (for “if this, then that”), provides a powerful but simple way for end users to handle collaborative app scenarios without having to learn about complex app development tools or enlist IT developers for support.
The graphic below shows where Flow fits into the overall Microsoft business platform tool strategy (source). As suggested in the graphic, Power BI, PowerApps, and Flow represent new options for power users working on app scenarios involving measurement, actions, and automation.
Overall, Office 365 and modern SharePoint represent a dramatic step forward in collaborative apps for both power users and professional developers.
Workspaces are a convenient way to make collections of apps and services available for teams, projects, and business app needs. Traditional SharePoint team sites, for example, have been widely used to provide collaborating groups of people with combinations of the content and collaboration capabilities described earlier in this post. For example, team sites typically include document libraries, lists, discussions, and perhaps custom collaborative apps for specific group needs. Traditional SharePoint was sometimes seen as a bit cumbersome for workspace creation and management, however, often requiring IT support for administration and customization. As a result, many enterprise employees have opted to use other options for group collaboration and content-sharing, ranging from reverting to email messages with file attachments to more consumer-oriented file-sharing services; these types of work-arounds generally involve information security and activity-tracking compromises.
Office 365 and modern SharePoint greatly simplify and modernize workspace-related activities. The simplest option, for many workspace needs, will be to use Office 365 Groups. Groups are easy to create and manage, and they include:
Conversations and a shared calendar
OneDrive app-accessible file storage and sharing
A shared OneNote notebook
A Planner plan
A SharePoint team site, making it easy to add shared modern SharePoint pages and other resources
Groups are very straightforward from an end user perspective, and they don’t sacrifice any of the enterprise control available with modern SharePoint sites.
Shared OneNote notebooks can also be effective for many group workspace needs, especially ones that are more focused on content-based collaboration using collections of organized pages. Although its role in the Office product family hasn’t always been clear, OneNote has been significantly enhanced over the last few years and now plays a more prominent role throughout Office 365. OneNote is likely to be preferred by many end users for page-centric collaborative scenarios due to its power, simplicity, and ability to work while network-disconnected. Since each modern SharePoint team site (and thus also each Office 365 Group) includes a shared OneNote notebook, the choice of a stand-alone OneNote notebook or a team site (or Group) comes down to the extent to which the workspace needs for a specific collaborative scenario can be directly addressed with OneNote’s workspace features.
We expect Microsoft will also share updates about compelling new SharePoint intranet site features at Ignite 2016, along with additional site templates based on the new SharePoint Framework.
As with the many conversation capabilities in Office 365 and modern SharePoint, the variety of different workspace options may at first seem a bit overwhelming, but keep in mind that Office Graph-based search/discovery services make it easy to find relevant content to which you have access privileges regardless of its workspace location.
Overall, we expect the new and greatly simplified workspace capabilities offered in Office 365 and modern SharePoint will be very popular. As an added bonus, the new workspace capabilities will also likely lead to reduced usage of less readily-controllable alternatives, such as using email messages with file attachments or consumer-oriented file-sharing services to support collaborative activities.
As a final content/collaboration capability category, social actions represent another domain that have become very popular in consumer-oriented services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Common social actions include the ability to:
Like — and thus recommend — an item
Subscribe to be notified about item updates
Share an item with others
Comment on an item in its source context
Otherwise annotate items, e.g., using emoticons
These capabilities have historically been associated with “enterprise social” platforms such as Yammer and Jive. Traditional SharePoint supports some social actions, but for the most part Yammer has been the enterprise social companion to traditional SharePoint.
Office 365 and modern SharePoint take a different approach, making social actions available throughout all apps. Rather than switching to a different app context to take a social action, Office 365 and modern SharePoint make it easy to take action in context, without the inconvenience and distraction of app-switching. They also support integration with platform-level notification services (e.g., the notification streams on Android and iOS), making it easy for people to keep up with Office 365 activities from their mobile devices.
In contrast to the limited social actions supported in traditional SharePoint, Office 365 and modern SharePoint make it very easy for people familiar with social actions in services such as Facebook to leverage similar conventions at work. The social actions are also captured in the Office Graph, again making it easy for people to discover recommended items, comments, and other social action-based annotations without having to worry about the app context in which they were captured.
Two SharePoint Platforms Are Better than One
Returning to the “A Tale of Two SharePoint Platforms” theme in the title of this post, we believe Microsoft made the right strategic call when it decided to continue supporting traditional SharePoint while also modernizing and optimizing SharePoint, using new technologies such as SharePoint Framework, for Office 365. This approach makes it possible for enterprises to continue using on-premises traditional SharePoint for as long as they see fit without compromising on the cloud-first/mobile-first and other modern capabilities required for Office 365 enterprise customers. Traditional SharePoint was designed to address a different set of enterprise requirements many years ago, and although it has continued to evolve during the last 15 years, it would have been impractical for Microsoft to attempt to address all cloud-first/mobile-first modern requirements while still building on the traditional SharePoint technology platform.
From a SharePoint user’s perspective, there are no abrupt boundaries between traditional and modern SharePoint. You can use modern SharePoint web parts (based on the new SharePoint Framework) in traditional SharePoint pages, for example, and you can also access traditional SharePoint sites and apps from the SharePoint Mobile apps, although they run in a browser control rather than in the new SharePoint Framework-based environment used for modern SharePoint sites and apps. There are also back-end integration models through connectors and gateways; for example, you can have on-premises traditional SharePoint content indexed in the modern SharePoint (Office 365-based) Office Graph.
It’s important to remember that not all modern SharePoint capabilities are available yet, so you should check your assumptions about the Office 365 and modern SharePoint user experiences as Microsoft continues to deliver new features over time. In particular, we expect the modern SharePoint feature/function floodgates will open at Ignite 2016, as Microsoft expands the scope of modern SharePoint capabilities based on SharePoint Framework and refines new tools such as Flow and PowerApps.
Fully Leveraging the Best of Both SharePoint Platforms
Most Microsoft customer enterprises are likely to use a hybrid deployment model for the immediate future, supporting a mix of on-premises/traditional SharePoint and Office 365-based modern SharePoint Online. We believe end user demand for the modern SharePoint user experience and power user tools will rapidly lead to widespread modern SharePoint usage, however, and that most enterprises will then benefit by being able to quickly and cost-effectively:
Assess their current content/collaboration platform deployments to determine which resources (content and collaborative apps) should be optimized and migrated to Office 365
The assessment scope should include traditional SharePoint as well as other widely used content/collaboration platforms including legacy platforms such as Lotus Notes/Domino; file-oriented systems and services such as Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive; and Web-centric services such as Atlassian Confluence and Google Sites
Leverage a collaborative project workspace to get all migration stakeholders on the same page in terms of establishing migration project priorities, as well as collaborating on requirements that can’t be inferred from an automated assessment
Use highly-automated tools to handle modernization and migration of template-based and relatively basic content and sites/apps, accelerating Office 365 deployment momentum
Fully address even the most complex collaborative apps, disaggregating them and recomposing them to take full advantage of the new apps and services in Office 365 and modern SharePoint
Support ongoing integration between old content/collaboration platforms and Office 365, for enterprises implementing multi-phase migration projects or indefinitely maintaining hybrid deployments
CASAHL addresses all of these requirements with its highly automated DART product suite and a set of services for assessment, collaborative migration project planning, fixed-fee migration, complex app recomposition, and ongoing integration. CASAHL DART is complementary with Microsoft’s FastTrack program, extending FastTrack by addressing a wider range of content sources along with collaborative apps, and by providing legacy detailed deployment insights and a project management framework for the largest enterprise migration projects.
If you’re making the move to Office 365 and want to fully leverage all of your legacy content/collaboration resources as you move to modern SharePoint, we encourage you to start by taking full advantage of the FastTrack program to address enterprise messaging and basic folder/file migration needs and then consider CASAHL as a comprehensive solution provider for the rest of your migration needs. Please contact us or visit our Web site to learn more about how Microsoft’s FastTrack Center and CASAHL, working together, can cost-effectively accelerate and optimize your move to Office 365. And if you’re going to be in Atlanta for Ignite 2016, please stop by booth 2058 for a DART demonstration.