Shared Channels Appearing Soon
At the Ignite 2021 virtual event, Microsoft talked up “shared channels,” a new way of cross-organization collaboration. Known as Microsoft Teams Connect, the feature allows team owners to add individuals and teams to a single channel within a team, or as Microsoft puts it, “anyone, internal or external to your organization.” This is different to the current approach where people join a team and have full access to everything within the team, except private channels (unless they’re added to the membership of those channels). According to Microsoft, shared channels are scheduled to be generally available later in 2021.
Like a Private Channel, but Oh-So Different
On the surface, a shared channel seems much like a private channel. Both types of channel create a sub-team within a team to access targeted resources belonging to the team. The big difference is that those invited to share a channel don’t become team members or have guest accounts in the hosting tenant. Instead, Teams federates connections between tenants to allow sharing to happen. It’s like the federation Teams supports today for chats with people in other tenants.
When a shared channel includes external members, those people have a (External) suffix like the (Guest) suffix used for guest members, and the channel has a visual marking to say that it’s shared with people outside the organization. And as with private channels, shared channels come with an icon to show that they’re different (Figure 1) and make them easy to recognize in the Teams navigation pane.
When someone accepts the invitation to join a shared channel, Teams clients show the shared channel as a resource in the Teams and channels navigation pane. None of the other channels in the team show up (a team can span up to 200 regular channels and 30 private channels). Just the shared channel shows up. The access external people have to resources is limited to whatever’s in the shared channel. Typically, a channel resources includes messaging (conversations), channel meetings, and files. Like private channels, a shared channel gets a SharePoint Online team site to share documents between members of the shared channel. And like private channels, Teams controls the management of the SharePoint site and doesn’t allow changes to be made to the membership except through Teams.
Like private channels, you can’t transform a regular channel to become a shared channel. Instead, channels for sharing are marked on creation to allow Teams to configure the necessary properties to enable access for people outside the team.
Microsoft mentions “app collaboration” for shared channels but aren’t specific about the details. Most apps are built to support one or more access models, and the experience with private channels shows that it will likely take time before even Microsoft’s own apps support shared channels.
No Switching Necessary
The biggest and most important difference between shared channels and other channels is that no switching is needed to move to a shared channel in another tenant. Shared channels from other tenants are listed as if they were in your home tenant. Behind the scenes, Teams takes care of checking that the account you sign into Microsoft 365 with has access to the shared channel, and if that test passes, you can connect without switching.
Not having to switch between tenants is a big deal. Those of how who work in the world of multiple tenants often switch tenants many times during a working day to stay abreast of developments in the different tenants. You might need to comment in a channel conversation, make a change in a document, respond to a chat, or mark a task as complete. And then you switch to the next tenant and go through the same process.
This doesn’t happen with a shared channel. Teams clients show shared channels alongside the teams and channels from your home tenant, and the movement between a shared channel and a regular channel is as easy as between two regular channels. And best of all, you can have shared channels from multiple tenants listed and be able to move from one to the other without the focus disruption of a tenant switch. Suddenly, collaboration becomes simpler and more natural.
Shared channels don’t work when a team is blocked for guest access, either by setting its properties to block guests or if a sensitivity label with container management settings to block guest access is assigned to the team.
Azure B2B Collaboration
Shared channels don’t use Azure B2B Collaboration. Today, people from other Microsoft 365 domains or those with a Microsoft Services Account (MSA) can be invited to join a team as a guest member. These users receive guest accounts in the Azure AD for the host tenant, and over time, Azure AD can become cluttered with large numbers of guest accounts. Apart from examining the activity of guests and removing the unused accounts, there’s no good way to clean up Azure AD. Because shared channels don’t need guest accounts, account debris doesn’t accumulate in Azure AD and administrators can be sure that the guest accounts which are present are needed to enable full guest access to Teams or for sharing SharePoint and OneDrive files.
The Next Step
Initially, shared channels will support personal and team membership from the same tenant. Later, Microsoft will add the ability to connect entire teams from other tenants in a shared channel. This kind of collaboration is valuable in scenarios where an organization has a project involving outside assistance from multiple suppliers. The organization can create a shared channel and invite individual subject matter experts to join, or complete teams from some of its suppliers.
Team to team connectivity for shared channels involves cross-tenant agreement for federated connections. In other words, administrators in both tenants must agree that it’s OK for teams to link up.
Microsoft Teams Connect will be in private preview for a while yet. During this period, Microsoft will refine how shared channels work and the surrounding infrastructure like compliance, management, and governance. And once the wraps come off for a public preview, you can expect Practical365.com to take a deep dive into how shared channels work.
For more information about shared channels, see the 1:15-4:45 segment in this Microsoft Mechanics video featuring Microsoft VP Omar Shahine.