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Office 365: Controlling the Uncontrollable

Difficult choices of a businessman due to crisis

In my previous post, “Office 365: Sophisticated, or Complex?,”  I provided examples of how the myriad of applications within Office 365 introduce new complexity into the lives of your end users—complexity which will be felt by IT administrators and managers as well.  In my opinion, Microsoft is building some promising next-gen tools, and it’s a fact that they’re being rolled out to users at an increasing pace.  Many of the applications available to standard Office 365 users provide overlapping functionality (see figure below), which creates confusion about which applications to use for each business use case.  With so many applications creating content, it makes technology governance problematic, not to mention generating worries about regulatory compliance, records management, and electronic discovery of the resultant content.


In this post, I’m offering up a few ways to address the complexity, with the understanding that the ways we can control it are limited, given that Office 365 is a cloud-based solution, built as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering.

Limit the number of choices. Ideally, we could decide which one or two collaboration applications will best serve your organization, and then deactivate the others.  Except that in Office 365, we can’t selectively uncheck a configuration box and “deactivate” these services. 

Disabling specific functionality is possible for some applications by using a hack or workaround.  On the web, there are examples of PowerShell scripts that can disable the use of “Groups,” but it’s a messy operation.  Fragments of the Groups interface will remain, and in some cases users will be offered the ability to make a Group, but an error will occur if it’s clicked.  Similarly, licenses for Microsoft Teams functionality can be controlled at the user level, allowing you to prevent its use.

Use policy to declare officially sanctioned applications. In some way, you’re probably already doing this. You may have a policy that users are permitted to use for company content, but not (or similar). You get the drift.  Some clients I work with decided to determine the best application to use for each usage pattern (collaboration, document management, chat, etc.) and then use corporately defined policy and change management to encourage adoption.

Wait for Microsoft to add the option to control the applications that users see. The folks in Redmond are already starting to add these choices as options to the Office 365 administration console, but I don’t expect we’ll ever have full control of the applications we want to deploy or restrict.  There’s a bigger strategy at play here, one that, in the long run, I believe will ultimately benefit organizations.

Embrace the short-term complexity and functional overlap, while Office 365 evolves.  One of most promising and interesting capabilities of Office 365 is its ability to bring context and relevancy to the information worker’s experience, through the Office Graph. Like Facebook and Twitter, Office 365 quietly collects data about every user’s activities, and uses it to improve the user experience.  Search is improved. Suggested content is surfaced, based on the teams a user belongs to.  The most relevant documents, people, and applications are placed in close reach, improving the user’s efficiency. These are all functions we’re familiar with in our personal lives, from our experiences on social applications.

Office Graph is connective tissue between the applications we use in Office 365.  It will continue to be the intelligence behind the scenes.  Disabling applications to reduce Office 365’s overall complexity can also disable vital mechanisms that Office Graph depends on, ultimately denying end users the full benefits of the platform.