It takes a village: Change management with Office 365

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Planning and organizing to stay on top of changes with Office 365

One of the key benefits of leveraging Office 365 for your SharePoint solutions is that you will be able to take advantage of all of the latest and greatest advances in the platform as they are launched. This means that you don’t have to worry about managing upgrades and fixes – and this should save time and resources associated with platform management. But, it also means that you have less control over when changes happen in your environment – and that means you need to stay on top of what Microsoft is planning. Successful change management is a lot about managing expectations. When people are fully informed and aware of changes to the software they use every day, the changes can be easier to accept – especially if you have evaluated the impact of these changes in advance. To ensure that your continuously evolving Office 365 environment is not disruptive to your users, you need to monitor what is happening with the platform with a multi-faceted “lens” – looking at upcoming changes from multiple perspectives. For that, it takes a village.

Create a Change Management Village (Team)

So who should be part of the “change management village” and how many people do you need in the village? Well, the number depends on the size of your organization, but in general, here is what I would recommend.

  • Create an ongoing change management team. This can and probably should include the members of your governance team who represent the following business groups: training, communications, application development, and application management (or infrastructure management), your Office 365 Administrator, and perhaps some key “power users.” (The link will allow you to download a list of key governance decisions and an approach that identifies potential members of your governance team.) 
  • Use the list below to assign sites to monitor to each member of the team.
  • Set up a group/team site for this team. Use the OneNote Notebook for the group to “pin” relevant information by tool or service (such as SharePoint, Yammer, or OneDrive) or “implication/area affected” (end user training, governance, communications, development practices, etc.).
  • Establish a cadence for regular meetings where you can talk about the information each member has curated since the previous meeting and plan for the relevant testing, communications, and training updates that you will need to implement.
  • And don’t forget one thing – while you may not know when every change will hit your tenant, your help desk will likely be the first to know when a user has a problem. Don’t forget to keep the help desk team engaged and aware of pending or launching changes!

Sites to Monitor

There are several places that you need to pay attention to when it comes to managing and monitoring change for Office 365. For most of these sites, you will need to assign more than one member of your change management team because each member wears a different “hat” based on their role – and will interpret the announcements from a different perspective. Some of the updates will be mostly relevant to IT Pros or Developers but other updates will have a clear implication for end users. I have found that it’s best to talk about all of the upcoming changes with the entire team – because it’s the best way to ensure that you are prepared. It will take some coordination by your entire village to monitor and prepare for many of the changes, but with careful planning and a place to share and exchange what you are learning, you will increase your ability to manage change and manage your user expectations.

  • Office 365 roadmap – This is where Microsoft publishes what features are in development, rolling out, launched, etc. This is the best place to get a sense of what is coming. It’s the first place to monitor because the information on the roadmap includes the longest planning horizon.
  • – Major updates to Office 365 are announced and described in detail in a single blog. You can use an RSS Reader to follow updates related to Office 365 and filter the posts inside the general blog by the different products in which you are interested.
  • Office 365 Message Center (for the Office 365 Admin for your Organization) – This is where Microsoft posts not only service status information, but also any upcoming features that require your attention.
  • Office 365 Community – This is the new public network community supported and managed by Microsoft. It is part of the new Microsoft Tech Community. In mid-September 2016, it will replace the Yammer Office 365 Network ( This is a great resource to use to post things you are noticing in your environment or questions you might have. Members of the community include the Microsoft product team, MVPs, and a large group of engaged and interested people all over the world. Be sure to follow the Change Alerts space in the network, another really good source of upcoming and just released change information.
  • Yammer Service Updates – Use this link to request access to this External Yammer Group that will show details on some Yammer A/B tests and service communications.
  • Office 365 UserVoice – This is a place to provide feedback that Microsoft pays attention to and uses to prioritize updates. You can add your request or “vote” on updates requested by other people. There are also separate user voice areas for some of the products and services within Office 365. For example:

What to Do Next

Once you have the information about upcoming changes, you need to identify which changes will only require communications, which changes might require user training, and which ones might actually conflict with a customization you have made. You won’t be able to actually test a change in your environment until it arrives in your tenant so to be prepared for that, you need to understand how changes are “flighted” or launched and how you can use this knowledge to stay ahead of and manage changes that might have an impact on your users.

  • Microsoft rolls out major changes in “rings,” starting with their own people internally and then moving to “First Release” tenants. First Release tenants are just that – complete environments where the “owner” of the environment signs up to be an “early adopter” of new features and capabilities. After Microsoft determines the feature is ready for broad release, the feature is deployed to remaining tenants.
  • You can subscribe to First Release if you want your tenant to get new features first – but you don’t get to choose which ones you get or when you get them – so this may not be the option for every organization and it might not give you time to prepare your users for every change.
  • Instead, you will more likely want to use another option that allows you to pick designated individuals to get “first release” features in a “non” First Release tenant. This program allows you to choose individuals (for example selected business analysts, developers, and trainers) who will get experience with new features and have some time to plan communications or documentation about what is happening before the updates hit the rest of the organization. Even if you don’t choose to have your entire tenant in First Release, it’s a good idea to have designated people (or accounts) as First Release users. The reason you want multiple people is because everyone has a different perspective and uses different features. The more users that are in First Release, the more likely you will have advance warning about things that might be confusing or surprising for the rest of the organization. The settings that allow you to pick either First Release for everyone or First Release for selected users are in the Settings area of the Office 365 Admin Center. Under Organization Profile, you can select your preferred release preference as shown in the picture.
office365 release preference settings

Release preference settings in Office 365

  • Another approach to consider is setting up a second Office 365 tenant in First Release (at an additional cost) where you can preview new features while leaving your production tenant “as is.” Some organizations set up demo tenants for this and, as a result, don’t have to pay for them – but the tenant is not permanent. A complete First Release tenant gives you an opportunity to fully test new features in an environment that won’t impact production. (It will be up to you to figure out if you want to replicate key features and content in your second tenant – and you may want to use a migration/back up tool for this purpose.)

Managing Change Requires Commitment

Managing change with Office 365 requires an ongoing commitment and while this takes some effort, it doesn’t have to be scary. I hope that Microsoft will continue their efforts to package changes in a way that allows people to see and test them before they are in production. A great example of this was the announcement about Modern Lists that included a way to preview the experience on any list even before the feature was “turned on” in your environment. I would also love to have more predictability about when updates are going to be “flighted” to the tenants I manage for myself and work in for my clients. As a business analyst specializing in user experience, my clients look to me to help ensure that they have all of the necessary information and training to adapt and respond to changes to Office 365 – so I really care about change management! I am confident that Microsoft understands that constant change can be very disruptive, in both large and small organizations. While Microsoft works to provide more information to help organizations predict, manage, and adopt changes to Office 365, you can create your own change management village to ensure that you are prepared for and effectively managing change in your own environment.

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