Power BI's odd integration with Office 365 Groups

Microsoft gave Office 365 Groups lots of focus at Ignite and many good things were promised to be rolled out over the remainder of 2015. Well, we are seeing some of the results of that work and I am under impressed with how the Power BI team have implemented their support of Groups. It seems half-hearted and done in such a way that they care only about their application and not for the rest of the service. It's a pity. A real pity.

Power BI is a cloud-based analytics application that can be bought as part of an Office 365 plan or added to for specific users. It allows users to analyze datasets drawn from different sources (the most basic of which is a CSV-format spreadsheet) and generate views of the data in visual and report formats.

Microsoft is keen that Office 365 Groups should be seen as a new shared identity that can be used to gain access to information drawn from across the service. The idea is that you add people to groups and they can immediately access all of the resources available to those groups. Out-of-the-box, each group comes with a mailbox (to hold threaded conversations and a shared calendar), notebook, and document library, but many hints were given at Ignite that Microsoft was going to expand the capabilities of groups to be used elsewhere within the service, such as the ability to access Dynamics CRM.

Using groups instead of individual accounts to manage access to information is usually a good idea. Mail-enabled security groups have been used for this purpose for on-premises Exchange environments for years. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is also based on security groups and the same general principle exists. You join the group to gain access to resources; that access is removed when you leave the group.

Office 365 Groups are a little different because they come fully-equipped for collaboration. However, they also provide that single identity that can be recognized and respected by applications across Office 365, as soon as those applications are upgraded to allow this to happen. SharePoint Online, for instance, was recently enhanced to allow users to share documents and other data with Office 365 Groups as easily as they can with other users.

In any case, Microsoft has also launched the ability of Power BI users to create and use Office 365 Groups to manage access to shared workspaces, within which datasets and reports are stored. The integration is pretty straightforward and draws on much of the work done to allow groups to be managed in Outlook Web App (OWA). You need to have a Power BI Pro license to be able to use the integration with Office 365 Groups.

When you enter Power BI, you see groups defined in the tenant listed under “Workspaces” in the left-hand navigation pane. Clicking on the name of a group reveals any information held in the workspace that is accessible to members of the group. It’s just the same as accessing a document library. The other data sources available to the group (conversations, calendar, notebook, and documents) can be accessed through the ellipsis […] menu.

So far, so good. The issues arise when you create a new group. As you probably know from previous reports, Office 365 controls the ability of users to create new groups via the GroupCreationEnabled setting in the OWA mailbox policy that’s applied to the mailbox. For example, this command updates a policy to prohibit group creation.

Set-OWAMailboxPolicy –Identity “OWAMaiboxPolicy-Default” –GroupCreationEnabled $False

Obviously Power BI knows nothing about OWA mailbox policies and so it proceeds to allow any and all users to create groups as they like. This is not a good thing because it can lead to a proliferation of groups that confuse users, clutter up the GAL, and generally get in the way of good management practice. I’ve asked Microsoft whether they plan to do anything to address this problem.

I also noticed some differences in the groups created through Power BI with those created through OWA or Outlook 2016.

  • No group owner is created. Normally the user who creates a group is automatically added as its owner. This is not satisfactory as every group should have at least one owner who is responsible for the content and use of the group.

  • You can’t set the auto-subscribe flag for the group so that members receive notification of new conversations via email.

  • You can't set the flag to allow external people to use email to communicate with group members.

  • You can’t add a description of the group. This is not important when the group is created but later on when you are trying to manage groups and want to understand what groups are useful/used and what are not, a description is often helpful.

  • If the tenant has a group naming policy enabled, that policy is ignored by the groups created within Power BI.

  • You can’t set the language of the group. Probably not too important as the conversations and other contributions to a group are in the language chosen by the authors. The language setting only controls the text used for auto-generated notifications such as the message sent to new members when they join a group.

It seems like Power BI is doing just enough to create Office 365 Groups for use by Power BI, which is fine until you put that view up against the assertion that Office 365 Groups are intended to function across the entire service. I hope they view this implementation very much as a first effort and will fix the problems outlined above ASAP.

It’s true that you can manage the groups created by Power BI with OWA, PowerShell, or Outlook 2016 to fix things up afterwards, but it seems a pity that Power BI has implemented its support of Office 365 Groups in such a half-hearted and unthoughtful manner.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Aug 4, 2015

Thanks for writing about Groups for Power BI! We're continuing to enhance our integration with Office 365 Groups and plan to make several improvements to the management functionality that we think will address some of the differences you outline in your post. If anyone would like to stay up to date with our changes, you can vote or comment on our idea forum and we'll keep you informed. Navigate to this page in your web browser for more details: support.powerbi.com/forums/265200-power-bi/suggestions/7170490-collaborate-and-build-team-dashboards

Adam Wilson
Product Manager, Microsoft Power BI

on Aug 11, 2015

Hi Adam... thanks for replying. Hopefully you can create a complete integration with Office 365 Groups. I will certainly keep track.

on Aug 4, 2015

Hi Tony,
Thanks for your feedback, and thanks for trying out groups in Power BI! The Power BI team is working on fixes for these issues now:
-- Set-OWAMailboxPolicy ....
-- No group owner is created.

We're aware of the other issues you describe, and are considering them for future releases. Can you comment on which ones you feel are most important?

Thanks!

on Aug 11, 2015

Obviously you don't want to provide users with a loophole that allows them to create new groups if admins have put policies in place to prevent this happening, so that's the first and biggest priority. After that, I think the other issues I point out should be fixable pretty quickly.

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