Microsoft Teams 101 – All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

UC Today takes a closer look at the app set to become Microsoft’s flagship cloud UC product

Microsoft Teams 101 – All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

Many users and clients may feel they have only just got to grips with Skype for Business Online as their frontline cloud UC solution.

But, as per Microsoft’s announcement in September, change is in the air as the Office 365 operator plans to phase out Skype for Business Online in favour of Teams.

Although no definitive date for the switchover has been set, Microsoft has already started adding Skype for Business functionality to the collaboration platform it launched in March 2017. The aim is to turn Teams into a complete UC&C solution in the cloud, combining enterprise-grade PBX and video conferencing with its existing team messaging and workflow capabilities.

So, in anticipation of all that, UC Today decided it was time to take another look at Microsoft Teams, and give Office 365 subscribers and would-be clients alike a flavour of what it is, and what it does.

What is Microsoft Teams?

Microsoft describes Teams as “a true chat-based hub for teamwork”. By ‘chat-based’, it means that the platform is built around IM, unlike Skype for Business where the main focus is voice and video.

The easiest points of comparison are apps like Slack, HipChat or Cisco Webex Teams. Teams falls squarely into a category of UC solution variously described as team messaging, team collaboration, or even social networking for business. As its name suggests, the focus of Teams is very much on facilitating group interaction in the workplace, as opposed to one-to-one communication – although that can still happen, of course.

Instant messaging has grown in importance in UC for a number of reasons. These include that fact that people find it easier to carry on other tasks while taking part in an IM conversation compared to answering the telephone or an email, which can be distracting. IM also offers very high response rates, and is a much better solution for group conversations compared to email.

The emphasis on groups also reflects the growing emphasis on collaboration in UC. Businesses don’t want work and communication to be two separate things, as in having to stop work to talk to people. Communication should be all about productivity, enabling people to work, or collaborate, together more effectively.

To that end, Teams focuses on group communication, on intuitive IM for conversations that fit seamlessly in with workflow, on document and screen sharing to aid collaboration, and on easy escalation to voice and video calls or conferences when typing a message just won’t do.

How does Microsoft Teams work?

A good way to think about Teams is like this. Imagine a bunch of Microsoft developers sitting down one day to discuss how they could align workflow and communication more effectively. They look at Office 365 and see it has all the cloud-based tools it needs – Skype for Business for video and voice, Yammer for team chat, Groups for collaboration spaces, Exchange for email and so on..

All that is missing, they agree, is a way to harness all of those capabilities in a single platform. They decide to come up with a solution, and end up developing Teams.

Like Office 365 Groups, Teams creates defined sharing and collaboration spaces for different groups of people. A typical use would be to create a team space for each department, so one for HR, one for marketing, one for finance and so on. These can be created from existing Office 365 groups, and members are easily added via Azure Active Directory IDs, which also takes care of permissions and security.

Each team also gets a SharePoint Online site with its own document library and an Exchange group email box. There are shared calendar and scheduling tools from Outlook, and document creation, sharing and editing tools from OneNote and OneDrive which allow work to be carried out within the app.

Each team space can be sub-divided into channels. A general channel is automatically created with each team space, but then it is up to users how many others they want. Channels might apply to different projects or different tasks the team members have to carry out. A small business might even choose to run a single team space and use channels to sud-divide into functions or departments.

Within this defined infrastructure, each group then gets its own IM service as discussed, along with voice and video capabilities powered by Skype for Business Online. As Skype for Business features are transferred over, these will be extended with the Phone System cloud PBX, PSTN network connectivity and enhanced conferencing features, including the ability to connect to meeting room systems.

What next for Teams?

Microsoft Teams GuideAt present, Teams would be categorised as a comprehensive collaboration solution for internal use within a business. For a company that already uses Office 365, or is thinking of signing up, it more or less makes the full suite of Office 365 tools available in a unified collaborative platform, allowing colleagues to do everything from schedule meetings to work on documents in real time to hold one-to-one or group video and voice calls.

But its main limitation at present is that all of this can only happen within a single company, on a single account. There is no support to external connections either via account federation, PSTN telephone services or just via third party web applications. But all of that is about to change.

Microsoft’s announcement that it is to phase out Skype for Business Online and instead move all functionality over to Teams can be seen as phase two of Teams’ development. Teams already uses Skype for Business Online technology to run chat, voice and video communications between co-subscribers.

By adding features such as Phone System, PSTN Calling, PSTN Conferencing plus federation from Skype for Business Online, Teams will be transferred into a complete end-to-end UC&C solution. Users will be able, for example, to set up workspaces with clients and suppliers, and interact with them through account federation.

Just as importantly, Teams users will be able to extend the work they can do from within the app to making external phone calls, while cloud PBX support will allow inward calls to be routed and managed through Teams. Extending conferencing capabilities will allow virtual meeting spaces to be created and external contacts invited to participate.

These changes have already started, and although there has been no confirmed end date as yet, we can expect Teams to fully replace Skype for Business within two to three years.

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