Distribution Groups, Office 365 Groups, and Microsoft Teams
What’s the difference between a contact folder, a contact group, a distribution group, an Office 365 Group, and a Microsoft Team?
Note: The Outlook interface changes almost daily. For example, the full ribbon is now being replaced with a compact Navigation bar. Fortunately, the concepts should remain constant for at least a week.
Outlook Contact Folders
An Outlook Contact Folder is a container for organizing your personal contacts in your own mailbox. It can be nested within a Contact Folder Group, just like folders in Windows File Explorer can be nested within other folders.
A Contact Folder appears as a node in Outlook’s navigation pane and as a separate address book. It is not a distribution list and cannot be used as one. It is only a tool for organizing your contacts. If you want to send an email to every contact in a Contact Folder, you must add each contact to the message.
Outlook Contact Groups
An Outlook Contact Group is a collection of contacts that you can use as a private distribution list. It is stored in a Contact Folder in your personal mailbox. You can add contacts to the group and then use it to send an email to every contact in the group.
Outlook Contact Groups are private distribution lists that exist only in your personal mailbox. If you add it to the To field of a new message, the Group will be broken out into the member contacts when the message is sent. The recipients will see all of the members in the To field, and not the group. For that reason, it is almost always better to put a Contact Group in the BCC field of a message, not the TO field.
To create a new Outlook Contact Group, browse to the Contact Folder where you want to create the Group and click New Contact Group from the Outlook ribbon.
Enter a meaningful name for your Group in the Name field and then click on Add Members in the new Contact Group ribbon and select from one of the three options. When you are done adding contacts to your group, click on Save & Close.
A distribution group is a collection of contacts stored on your Exchange server and usually listed in your organization’s Global Address List. It is created by your Exchange administrator, but management of the group’s ownership might be delegated to one or more other people.
There are various types of distribution groups in Exchange (dynamic groups, mail-enabled security groups, and standard distribution groups), but for most users, the important thing to remember is that when you send an email to a distribution group, it will be delivered to all members of the group. Recipients will see the name of the group in the TO field instead of all of the separate members of the group.
Delivery to a distribution group can be restricted in various ways by your Exchange administrator. It might only allow internal senders to send messages to it, only a small list of individuals, or it might allow anyone in the world to send it messages.
Office 365 Groups
Office 365 Groups are superficially similar to distribution groups but have several important differences.
If your Exchange administrator allows it, any Exchange user can create an Office 365 Group from within the Outlook desktop client or Outlook Online. Be careful, however. Office 365 Groups appear in your organization’s Global Address List so everyone else in your organization will see it.
Office 365 Groups have several features that standard distribution groups do not:
- All emails sent to the group are stored in the group Inbox, but you can “subscribe” to have them also delivered to your own Inbox.
- The group has a shared document library that can be accessed via a web browser or by syncing it to your desktop OneDrive client.
- A group calendar that can be accessed via a web browser or your desktop Outlook client.
- The ability to add mail contacts to the group as Guests. These guests have limited access to the group resources, but will receive all group email.
To create an Office 365 Group in the Outlook desktop client, click on New Group in the ribbon. The ambiguous label of this button makes it look like you are creating a Contact Group in your personal contacts, but it will actually create an Office 365 Group in your organization’s Global Address List where all other users can see it. Be careful with this feature.
To create an Office 365 Group in Outlook Online, while in the People view, click on New and select Group.
If you don’t see the option to create a new Office 365 Group in Outlook, then your Exchange Administrator has restricted that feature. Most users (90%+) who create Office 365 Groups do so without even realizing it–they thought they were just creating a personal contact group–so I recommend that every organization turn this feature off.
Microsoft Teams combines several components of Office 365 into a single interface designed for team collaboration and communication. Teams combine all of the features of Office 365 Groups plus several communications options and the ability to plug in many other apps from Microsoft and third parties. In fact, a Team’s features are built around an Office 365 Group with the same name. When you create a new Team, the corresponding Group is created with it.
Here are the major features of Microsoft Teams:
- All of the features of Office 365 Groups. See above.
- Nearly identical interface in the desktop, stand-alone mobile, and web clients.
- Chat-like group conversations.
- Bots that can perform automated tasks, specialized searches, and AI assistance.
- Tabs to organize apps, files, and pinned documents.
- The ability to create Channels, each with its own conversations, document libraries, and tabs.
- Apps, like a Team Wiki, Planner, OneNote, Power BI, etc.
- Connectors to integrate third-party apps and utilities, such as Twitter, cloud storage, RSS feeds, Mailchimp, and many more.
There is very little reason to create an Office 365 Group directly instead of a Team. You can use as much or as little of the available feature set from the start, and then grow into the rest as needed.
To create a Microsoft Team from any web browser (https://teams.microsoft.com) or the desktop app, click “Join or create team” in the upper right corner.
From the “Join or create a team” screen, you can create a new team or join an existing team by entering a code provided by your organization. If you create a new Team, you will be asked what type of team you want to create. The options presented will depend on the nature of your organization, and will create your team with slightly different default options.
Give your Team a clear and meaningful name so that others in your organization will have a good idea of what the Team is for, and add a description that further describes the purpose of the Team.
Set the privacy of your Team to Private (the default setting) or Public. A user can join a private Team only by requesting membership or by being invited by a Team owner, while a user can join a public Team without approval. Depending on how the Team is configured, some features might require further approval if it is set to Private.
Once your Team has been created, you will need to add members. To add new members, simply begin typing the name of a user or group and selecting from the suggestions. After that, you add apps, tabs, channels, bots, and all of the other features of Teams, but I recommend starting slowly. Add one feature at a time, and try not to overwhelm your coworkers. In other words, don’t follow the example that Microsoft has set with Office 365.