How to Use SharePoint Groups and Microsoft 365 Groups in Your Project Site

SharePoint Groups and Microsoft 365 Groups and their Permission are probably the most difficult topic to understand in SharePoint and a big challenge for project managers or PMO members who have to setup a project site for their project for the first time. However, it is essential that you understand this very well so that everyone has the permissions they need on your site according to the “need to know” principle and to protect the project data accordingly. If you’ve struggled with SharePoint permissions, read on to become a SharePoint permissions expert.

The Microsoft 365 Groups

Introduced in 2015, Microsoft 365 Groups provided a much-needed alternative to organizations looking to enhance collaboration with Microsoft applications. Microsoft 365 Groups is a cross-application membership service. A Microsoft 365 group is a security group within Azure Active Directory. IT enables teamwork for a group of people with a shared purpose, such as a project, a department or a team. It has a list of members and is attached to that group’s related Microsoft 365 workloads, including a SharePoint team site, Exchange mailbox, Planner, Power BI, OneNote—and, optionally, a team in Microsoft Teams.

Microsoft Groups have been a blessing for the future of SharePoint Online within Office 365. SharePoint is fantastic for content management, but it tends to fall short when it comes to tasks like managing project tasks, inviting people to a shared calendar or providing business intelligence solutions—that’s where Planner, Exchange Online and PowerBI shine. Microsoft 365 Groups let you connect all these services and relieve SharePoint of the stress of providing solutions it wasn’t designed for.

There are many ways to create a Microsoft 365 Group, e.g., in:

  • Outlook (online)
  • Outlook (desktop)
  • SharePoint Online
  • OneDrive
  • Planner
  • Teams

When you create a Microsoft 365 Group in one of these Microsoft applications, the following attributes will automatically be created in the background:

  • Outlook email distribution List
  • Outlook group calendar
  • SharePoint site
  • Planner
  • One-Note

A Microsoft Team is not automatically created when you first create an Office 365 Group or a SharePoint Online Site. If you need afterwards a Team, you create the Team in Teams, and in the creation process, you have to connect the team manually with the already existing Office 365 Group. However, if you create a new Team in Microsoft Teams as a first step, then a Microsoft 365 Group is automatically created and, in the background, an associated SharePoint site, planner and the other elements. Sounds rather complicated.

Things to Know When Giving Permissions via Microsoft 365 Groups

When you first create a SharePoint Online Site, SharePoint Groups and Microsoft 365 Groups are automatically created. Microsoft 365 Groups give permission to all Microsoft 365 applications, including SharePoint Online (only 2 Groups: Owners and Members).

SharePoint Groups give only permission to SharePoint content and the advantage is that the permissions are free configurable. SharePoint groups cannot be used in conjunction with other Office 365 products (i.e. Exchange or Planner). Microsoft 365 Group Owners and Members have access to all content of your project SharePoint site in the same way as the SharePoint group Members and Owners, except for content with unique permission. That’s important to know! Microsoft solves this by, for example, copying the Microsoft Office 365 Member Group into the SharePoint Member Group. A good solution! I expected that also the Microsoft Office 365 Owner group is copied into the respective SharePoint Group. But this is not the case.

SharePoint Groups and Microsoft 365 Groups connected
SharePoint Groups and Microsoft 365 Groups connected

The SharePoint site hides this complexity and only shows you the number of members inside the 365 group in the top right corner:

Microsoft 365 Group Members

If you use only Microsoft 365 groups but need to protect certain confidential project information on your SharePoint site (like financial information, SOW’s with contractors etc.), then save this information in a separate document library or list and give it unique permission.

These three points you have to remember:

  • Office 365 Groups give permission to all Office 365 applications, including SharePoint Online (only 2 Groups: Members and Owners).
  • SharePoint Groups give only permission to SharePoint content, such as list and libraries (Groups and Permissions free configurable).
  • When a SharePoint Online Site is created, SharePoint Groups and Office 365 Groups are automatically created.

When to Use SharePoint Groups and When Microsoft 365 Groups

The assignment of rights in SharePoint has always been difficult to understand. With the introduction of Microsoft 365 Groups (former name “Office 365 Groups”), the whole topic has become even more complex. Now you can assign permissions to your SharePoint site to your project team members in two ways—with SharePoint Groups and Microsoft 365 Groups. Which option should you choose?

I would say, if you use all the functionalities of Microsoft 365 together in your project, such as SharePoint, Teams, Planner and Outlook, then Microsoft 365 Groups will serve you better than SharePoint groups. If, on the other hand, you only use SharePoint as your central tool, then it’s better to use only the proven SharePoint groups. Another important point speaks for SharePoint groups. With SharePoint Groups you have a more granular and better control of SharePoint content.

The advantages of using Microsoft 365 Groups are:

  • It’s much easier to assign access rights to your team and administrate them.
  • The rights are automatically valid for the complete Microsoft 365 Group applications

The disadvantages of Microsoft 365 Groups are:

  • You have only two permission levels (Owners and Members)
  • You cannot assign access rights to document libraries and list as detailed as with SharePoint groups.
  • Office 365 member rights are more powerful than SharePoint member rights. With member rights, you can redesign a page, change the design and column order in a document library etc. (this can be dangerous)
  • Permission levels cannot be customized

As you’ve seen, Office 365 groups are very useful for broader applications across multiple Office products. However, it’s also obvious that SharePoint groups are still very useful in certain SharePoint-centric situations as well.

The important thing is, that one does not exclude the other. This means you can use Microsoft 365 Groups across all applications (including SharePoint). And for specific use cases, use SharePoint groups and permissions to restrict access further granularly to SharePoint libraries or lists.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the relationship with SharePoint. We are in a “modern time” with Microsoft 365, which connects SharePoint with Planner, Teams, Groups etc. Start viewing modern SharePoint team sites as part of a bigger picture. SharePoint isn’t isolated anymore—it’s evolved into a connected solution for teamwork. Embracing this new purpose and working with group owners and members will make life easier for everyone involved. In a true teamwork situation, after all, you shouldn’t need to differentiate roles beyond Owner and Member. Coming from a classic SharePoint background, however, I’m fully aware that adopting this mindset is far easier said than done.

More information to this topic:

Top 5 features of Office 365 Groups

20 ways to create an Office 365 Group

Here You Can Find Even More Knowledge

Would you like to learn more about how to make your projects more successful with SharePoint Online? My book “SharePoint Online for Project Management” takes you an important step further!

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SharePoint Online for Project Management
Posted in SharePoint.