At the Ignite conference in November 2019, Microsoft announced the availability of private channels for Teams. Two years later, we’re looking forward to shared channels, due to be delivered later in 2021. Taken together with regular channels, some folks are now confused as to where they should consider the use of regular, private, or shared channels for collaboration. Let’s try and define the use cases for regular and private channels and set out what might happen with shared channels, acknowledging that these are not yet generally available.
A team is built from channels. Starting off, a team has a General channel. In fact, the General channel is the core of a team. It cannot be removed or renamed. But that’s OK, because a team can have up to 199 additional regular channels to use to segregate discussions. All team members have full access to whatever’s stored in regular channels.
Ideally, the General channel should be kept for team-wide announcements rather than discussions, which should be in channels dedicated to themes. There’s nothing to stop you keeping everything in the General channel and this can work for low-traffic teams, but once discussions heat up and become active, keeping everything in General often creates a catch-all collection of badly organized topics that’s difficult to navigate. For this reason, it’s best to block the ability to post to the General channel to anyone but team owners (Figure 1).
Posting privileges for other channels works differently. Instead of just owners, you can assign channel moderators and restrict the ability to add new posts to moderators (Figure 2).
Apart from restricting who can post into channels, the major issue is to decide on how many channels to have within a team. You can have a team with 200 channels (General limited, 199 available for conversations). Without iron discipline on the part of members and owners alike, the team will be a mess. In all likelihood, relatively few channels will be used on a daily basis and the rest will become the digital equivalent of abandoned frontier towns with a few initial conversations and then nothing. In short, it’s better to start with a few channels and grow the number of channels when justified by an obvious demand. It’s also good to have someone act as the DRI to keep an eye on what happens in a channel.
A private channel is a restricted part of a team that’s only available to a subset of team members. There can be up to 30 private channels in a team, each supporting a membership of up to 250 tenant and guest accounts. Managing channel membership looks and feels like managing the membership of a team (Figure 3) with the proviso that someone must join a team first before they can join a private channel within the team. To maintain privacy, team owners must become a member of a private channel to be able to access content belonging to the channel.
If someone leaves a team, they lose access to the private channels they had membership of. Teams also removes people from private channel membership if their Azure AD account is disabled.
Private channels are useful in scenarios when some confidential discussions need to happen away from the view of all team members. For example, you might need to discuss the financial structure of a project without exposing all the details to every team member. A private channel does this by providing a space for conversations and a dedicated SharePoint Online site for sharing documents.
Apart from having its own membership (or “roster”), the dedicated SharePoint site is the most distinctive feature of a private channel. Microsoft went with this approach to ensure that they could guarantee the privacy of documents shared within the private channel. The sites used for private channels are created in the same geographic region as the parent team and inherit settings from the parent site (the classification setting is synchronized automatically by Teams). Teams also synchronizes settings and site membership from the host team to the private channel sites to make sure that important controls like sensitivity labels can’t be removed.
Not all Teams apps work with private channels. In fact, while first-party apps like Microsoft Lists work with private channels, others like Planner don’t. Getting an app to work means that the developer needs to support the unique characteristics of private channels, including taking steps to ensure data privacy. Apps like Lists work because they leverage SharePoint Online and use site settings. Other apps aren’t so lucky.
Shared channels are part of the Microsoft Teams Connect initiative and are generally available to all Microsoft 365 tenants (August 2022).
Shared channels bring external federation to the table. Instead of using Azure B2B Collaboration (guest accounts) to define who can access a shared channel, an organization enables federation using cross-tenant access policies with other Microsoft 365 tenants to allow teams and individual users to connect to work together. External federation is used for 1:1 calls in Teams today but extending the technology to cover channel conversations and document sharing requires a lot more engineering effort and testing to ensure privacy, compliance, and so on.
Federation might emphasize the importance of the host tenant, meaning the tenant which owns the team and the content belonging to the team. Collaborating with another organization who ends up owning the content is an interesting concept which will have to be parsed out by some, but in effect it’s the same effect as today when a guest account creates some content in a host tenant. Tenant administrators already complain today that they have zero visibility about the actions taken by “their” users when they sign into other organizations to use Teams. Quite how they’ll take it when a complete team joins a shared channel in another organization is unclear. We’ll know in time.
Of course, the downside of federation is that you can collaborate only with people using Teams. Although Teams has many users, it’s still covers a limited subset of the people you might want to work with.
Choice is Good
Going forward, the three channel options available in Teams will be:
- Regular: Open to all team members, use for day-to-day communication within a team.
- Private: Open to a defined subset of team members (including guests), use for private conversations and document sharing.
- Shared: Open to a defined subset of team members and people/teams shared in other federated organizations, use for collaboration.
Of course, things may change, and this is a topic certainly worth revisiting after shared channels become generally available.