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Office 365 – What’s that then?

(First published by Neil on 06/06/2018)

I used to work for a company that conducted most of its day-to-day business using a single Office 97 licence on about half a dozen PCs; before the days of ubiquitous internet connections, you could get away with that, because Office didn’t ‘phone home’ to check licence status. When Windows XP came along, Office 97 wasn’t supported, and I had to do registry hacks on any new PCs we bought, in order to get it to work. This was probably an extreme example, but I suspect that there are still plenty of companies out there where staff are begging for Office updates but matters like paying suppliers have to take priority.

Office 365 might be the answer for those companies. Yes, you have to pay a subscription per user, but you get continuous updates and it means that administration can be done by a ‘moderately clued’ employee rather than having to pay a retainer to the local IT company.

So, without the whizzy background music and professional video of beautiful people being incredibly creative and productive, here’s a very quick and honest run-through of what Office 365 is all about. The array of different licences is, being Microsoft, pretty Byzantine and changes every few weeks, but this is what we get with Office 365 Business Premium.

  • Office 2016 applications: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access (depending on how generous Microsoft are feeling this year), Publisher, Outlook. These are updated continuously, and you often go into Word in the morning to find it’s been given a shiny new feature, such as the ‘dictate’ button that appeared yesterday. It’s important to note that these are the full standalone desktop versions, although you also have access to the online versions.
  • Exchange email. Rather than having your own Exchange server on-site, it sits in the cloud, so you don’t have the hassle of administering it and keeping up with things like the spam control arms race.  You have a certain amount of control over it with the online Admin Center, but after an initial setup I tend to stay away from this.
  • A SharePoint intranet, which you can divide into what MS calls ‘Team Sites’. These can be used for all kinds of collaboration, news, and document sharing. SharePoint has enormous potential for workflow and productivity, but is far too big a topic to cover here.
  • A crazy amount of cloud storage using SharePoint and OneDrive-for-Business. This is where you first start to wonder why there are two different ways of doing similar things (more of which later), but the simple guidelines are for staff to put their personal documents in OneDrive-for-Business and shared documents in SharePoint. OneDrive-for-Business now also allows file sharing though, and you can even share an Office document on OneDrive-for-Business with somebody who doesn’t have Office: they read and edit it using the online versions of Office applications. You can even work on the same document simultaneously, which is pretty sci-fi to those of us who remember floppy disks. The great thing about cloud storage is that if your company burns down and the backup tapes turn out to contain just episodes of Eastenders, then you can take solace in the fact that there are copies of everything safe and sound in the cloud. My own view is that concerns over security and privacy are pretty naïve: everything is heavily encrypted, and you could always add another layer of encryption if you were really paranoid.
  • Skype for Business. This is what used to be Lync, and why MS chose to change its name to something that’s based on an entirely different technology is beyond me. But anybody that’s used Lync will know that it’s an excellent product, and you can base your company’s entire communications on it if you wish.
  • As I go down the list, this is the point where I consider things to get pretty tenuous. The rest of the apps available have all the hallmarks of having been developed by startups and bought by Microsoft in the hope that they’re going to be the next killer app. You have things like Yammer, which is like an internal Twitter, but overlaps fairly confusingly with Microsoft Teams. OneNote is one of those products that sounds as if it could dramatically increase productivity, but I find I only really use it to collate hotel vouchers, route planning, and car hire agreements when I go on holiday. Things like Business Center, Flow, PowerApps, Delve, Sway, etc, may well have potential to improve workflow and increase productivity, but they would require commitment and training to implement, and you might find that they just add another layer of complexity. Whenever workflow is discussed in this way, I always remember the boss I had who, for years after email attachments become the norm, insisted on printing documents out on to paper and faxing them. You might have better luck than me if you have a particularly young and receptive workforce.

Obviously, if you do have a young and receptive workforce and want to implement these features, or if you simply want training and e-learning in the less avant-garde aspects of Office 365, then do please consider contacting us for all your requirements.

Edit January 2020 — Microsoft Teams is now Microsoft’s preferred communications tool and Skype-for-Business is to be phased out.

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