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Microsoft Teams Connect Shared Channels Preview Coming this Month

Microsoft on Wednesday announced that a preview of Teams Connect shared channels, which aims to ease collaborations with external parties, will be arriving this month. 

Microsoft currently has a few existing solutions to set up collaborations with external parties. It has Azure Active Directory B2C and Azure AD B2B solutions, where guest accounts get established and participants are invited to join via e-mail.

Also, on the Microsoft Teams side, external parties can collaborate in Teams if they are first made a member of a team that's set up by the host organization. However, this approach in Teams can involve so-called "tenant switching," a somewhat clunky experience for the guest user. Tenant switching happens when end users change from using Teams in their organizations to accessing the Teams resources of another company.

Another potential limitation for sharing on the Teams guest side, currently, is that guest users get the privileges of the team of which they were made members, which could lead to an "oversharing" of information.

New Shared Channel in Teams
To ease Teams sharing while maintaining IT controls, Microsoft is adding a new "shared channel" in Microsoft Teams. It's added on top of the current "standard channel" and "private channel" collaboration options in Teams.

The new Teams shared channel option dispenses with having to add a guest user to a team, as well as having to create a new team just for sharing purposes, Microsoft explained:

With shared channels users can invite others to a specific channel without having to first add them to the team. This avoids oversharing and removes the need to create new teams when collaboration in existing channels needs to expand to others outside the team.

B2B Direct Connect
The coming Teams Connect shared channels feature uses a new collaboration technology called Azure AD "B2B Direct Connect." It depends on IT pros setting up Azure AD cross-tenant access policies to enable the sharing, per the announcement:

External collaboration in shared channels is powered by B2B direct connect, a new way to collaborate with other Azure AD organizations -- no need to add the external user as a B2B guest. Azure AD admins can manage B2B direct connect using cross-tenant access policies. External collaboration is off by default. To enable a shared channel between organizations, both sides must configure cross-tenant access policies. Admins can grant, restrict, or revoke access for external users at an individual, group, or tenant level.

Notably, the sharing enabled by Teams shared channels, using Azure AD B2B Direct Connect, is turned off by default. Moreover, both Teams tenancies have to opt into the sharing by configuring their Azure AD cross-tenant access policies.

Once those configurations are done, it's possible for owners of Teams shared channels to simply invite another party to collaborate. These shared channel guests can do things like "upload, view and co-author at the same time" on documents that are shared in the channel. These guest users will be identifiable within the shared channel with "several visual cues," Microsoft indicated. For instance, the word "External" gets appended to their names.

The Host Tenant Owns the Data
The document sharing is enabled by a dedicated SharePoint site that gets set up for the shared channels. If an organization has set up conditional access policies for its tenancy, then those policies will apply to the document collaborations within the shared channel. Microsoft expressed that notion as follows:

Conditional access policies applied to SharePoint app in the tenant hosting the shared channel will apply to document collaboration in the channel. We have improved the SharePoint admin experience, helping you manage sites collections associated with shared and private channels better.

The information protection policies and capabilities set up in a tenancy also will apply to shared channels. Microsoft indicated that things like "eDiscovery, legal hold, communication compliance, information barriers, audit logs, retention, and DLP [data loss prevention]" will apply. The host tenant "owns" the data in shared channels, and any Sensitivity Labels (an information classification scheme) applied to that data will be enforced within the shared channels.

Availability
Shared channels is apparently just one of the capabilities of Microsoft Teams Connect, a capability described during last year's Microsoft Ignite conference. Teams Connect is currently listed by Microsoft as being at the private preview stage.

At the end of March, though, Microsoft plans to roll out a public preview of Teams Connect shared channels. Availability of the preview will be indicated in advance to IT pros overseeing Teams tenancies via "Message Center post MC334274," Microsoft indicated.

Prior to the general availability release of Teams Connect shared channels, Microsoft is planning to bolster the shared channels capability with various app capabilities, such as "tabs, connectors, bots, message extensions and [support for] line of business apps." It's also possible to build custom experiences for shared channels using "updated Graph APIs and App SDK, available now," Microsoft indicated.

Nuances for IT Pros
There are lots of nuances for IT pros to observe regarding Teams Connect shared channels.

For instance, some custom settings can only be made if an organization has an Azure AD Premium license, according to Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Luca Vitali, in the comments section of Microsoft's announcement.

Microsoft MVP Tony Redmond offered a deep dive into Teams Connect shared channels in this February Practical 365 post. Redmond noted that guests currently are required have an Azure AD account to participate in shared channels, but Microsoft possibly could extend access to Microsoft account users at some point. He also suggested that Azure B2B collaborations would continue to be used because there is still value in enabling access to multiple teams within an organization for guests.

Another good summary of the nuances of Teams Connect shared channels can be found in this November AvePoint (Microsoft partner) blog post, which summarizes details from a Microsoft Ignite session.

Microsoft MVP Brien Posey, writing for Redmondmag.com, described Teams Connect as a game changer for external sharing in this February article. He noted that Teams Connect will enable sharing a channel with an individual or with whole teams. The elimination of tenant switching with Teams Connect will remove the current disruptive "bouncing back and forth between accounts," he added.

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