Microsoft Planner — the work management complement to Office 365 — was made available as a preview in December 2015, but has entered ‘general availability’, meaning it will become immediately accessible to users of eligible subscription plans. In Office 365, it will appear as another tile in the Office 365 tools (see the leftmost tile in the second row, below).
Microsoft Planner is a task-centric work management solution, despite the ‘project management’ terminology other reviewers are using. The orientation of the tools is to support teams and team members tracking tasks and coordinating task work through social communications.
Planner is one of several task-oriented solutions that Microsoft is working to integrate, including Wunderlist and Microsoft Project. Conceptually, this means that users will be able to manage personal tasks (in Wunderlist), team work (in Planner), and to manage project planning (in Microsoft Project), and for these to be integrated in sensible ways. So for example, it might be helpful if I could see my work-related tasks, perhaps created and annotated in Planner, in a mobile Wunderlist app. Or to analyze the cost implications for a shift in personnel in a Planner project within the portfolio of company projects managed in Microsoft Project. That’s one part of the company’s long-range vision for Planner and the other tools manipulating task information. But it is going to be a long time before all the kinks and use cases are worked out for that grand vision. And at any rate, ultimately Planner will have to stand on its own, based on how good of a work management tool it is.
And that assessment poses another issue. If Planner requires Office 365 in order to use it — or even experiment with it — many prospective users will simply never jump through the hoops to try it out. I have raised that very issue with Microsoft representatives this year, as I was being briefed on the product. My suggestion is that Microsoft should create a standalone version of planner — at least a web app, if not mobile apps — so that an individual, team, or company could do an apples-to-apples comparison with Asana, Trello, or Wrike, and not the apples-to-oranges comparison with the umpty-ump boxes in that Office image, above. Also, that is the best way for Planner’s functionality to improve — in head-to-head competition — and not as a captive work management ‘capability’ locked into Office 365, relying on its integration with Office email, Outlook, Groups, and other tools.
The following is a condensation of the review of Planner from the in-process 2016 Work Management Narrative (much delayed), that I am authoring.
Planner is based on the well-known kanban-style, ‘board’ architectural model, and three modes of boards are supported at present: user-defined ‘buckets’, task assignment to members, and progress. As shown in the screenshot below, there is a left hand column where I have selected a plan, in this case Work Management Narrative, and I chose to display that plan as Buckets, not by Progress or Assigned to. In the ‘research tools’ bucket there is a single task, ‘research Microsoft Planner’, which shows icons indicating 0 of 2 subtasks have been completed, that there are comments, and the task has been assigned to Stowe Boyd. The half moon icon indicates that the task is in progress, a third state for tasks: unstarted, in progress, and completed.
Clicking on ‘write method section’ expands that task (or, in the usual terminology, turns over the ‘card’), as we see in the screenshot below. At the foot we see a stream of comments — the one with a white background was entered in an associated discussion, about which more later. There are a variety of other attributes, showing a rich task model, however, lacking support for some common social communications like ‘@mentions’.
What’s not clear from this zoom into Planner is that the ‘work management narrative’ plan corresponds to a Office 365 group of the same name. Groups support group-oriented communications, but those are not accessed in the Planner section of Office 365.
I believe that Planner users will find the need to return to Outlook to conduct conversations about their projects annoying, as opposed to the more normal model of an in-context — or best, in-project — activity stream. I bet that Microsoft will hear this as a frequent suggestion for additional Planner functionality. However, I often operate in multiple windows on the same project workspace, and so, having a conversation window and a Planner board view open at the same time is really not very different, and may be workable for many. Note also that if Microsoft builds a standalone version of Planner there will be no Outlook to lean upon, so an in-context activity stream or chat model would be best.
Office 365 users are likely using the spectrum of features — Outlook, OneDrive, Office apps, Groups, OneNote, and Planner — and therefore will rapidly habituate to transiting the many loosely integrated components, and will likely adapt to a model of use involving a lot of moving around.
By itself, Planner would only be considered a team task management tool, not a true work management tool, since it lacks activity streams, @mentions, and other baseline social communications. However, that’s a red herring, since Planner — at present — is never without Groups and Outlook, and can’t be separated from them.
At present, I think the initial implementation of charts is a better indicator of where Planner is headed. In the screenshot below I’ve pulled an example from the Microsoft website (since my examples aren’t rich enough), and this shows the ease of quickly grasping the status of a Planner ‘document’ through a dashboard view.
I also want to give a nod to the designers of Planner for including the three state model for task status: not started, in progress, and completed. The in-progress state is incredibly powerful, and after using it in some tools, I now chafe whenever confronted with a solution that lacks it.
Planner is an obvious choice for those already committed to Office 365 as a baseline for work productivity. However its current level of integration with Office 365 services — like Outlook, OneDrive, and OneNote — falls short of work management nirvana. Still, it’s early days, and when I reviewed it the product was only in a ‘First Use’ release phase.
I can imagine that within a very short time frame the myriad hooks that could make Planner a first-class member of the Office 365 suite will begin to emerge. I wager that creating tasks from email, or in the comments of a Groups or OneDrive comments — as just some of the most obvious examples — will be implemented within the next few releases, or sooner.