Microsoft Partners Praise Office 365 Planner

Microsoft Planner, a collaboration and project management platform released this week to beef up Office 365, will make the market's leading cloud-based office productivity suite more versatile and stickier for customers, partners told CRN on Tuesday.

The tech giant from Redmond, Wash., on Monday began rolling out to Office 365 users the online tools that offer a visual approach to creating plans, sharing tasks, chatting and fostering teamwork around projects.

Planner implements a system of shared boards, cards and buckets by which users can organize projects, with work created on its platform integrating across applications in the Office 365 suite, including Word, Outlook and OneNote.

[Related: Microsoft Delivers Long-Awaited Office 365 E5]

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Matt Scherocman, president of Interlink Cloud Advisors, a Microsoft partner based in Cincinnati, said his company has been using the Planner tools in beta for several months, and has "found it a great way to coordinate items."

Internally, Interlink beta-tested Planner by using the platform to track its marketing efforts.

"We can have our own team and our external marketing firm all on the same page," Scherocman said. "We love being able to see the different buckets, which allows us to separate our high-priority items from low-priority ones."

He expects, with the general release, the firm's customers will quickly see the same kinds of benefits in realizing project goals.

"We think this will be a tremendous solution for our clients who need a solution for tracking activity to a goal that is less complex than Project and allows more collaboration than Outlook tasks," Scherocman said.

Ric Opal, vice president of Microsoft partner Peters & Associates, based in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., said he can't wait to see the platform deployed in production for the Office 365 accounts his company manages.

Planner should fill an important gap between "good and interesting tools that offer basic collaborative capabilities" -- like Outlook email, Task Manager and Wunderlist -- and complex systems that offer power and flexibility, like Microsoft Project, but require a high skill level to use.

"I think Planner lands right in the middle of those scenarios," Opal told CRN. "People want more than rudimentary task management. And they want a web interface."

By integrating the new collaborative stack across the Office 365 suite, Planner gives Microsoft partners a competitive advantage in the market against the many vendors that have introduced popular standalone collaboration platforms, Opal said. And Planner positions Office 365 to compete nicely not only against startups like Trello, but also its traditional Software-as-a-Service nemesis, Google Apps.

Opal said he expects to see partners and customers develop innovative uses around Planner that will further differentiate the product in the crowded market.

"They're going to find use cases for this that haven't been even thought of," Opal said. "This makes Office 365 all the more sticky to customers."

To maximize the opportunity, resellers will have to leverage the platform capabilities and add value by building intellectual property, catering to verticals or developing task sequences that solve business problems, Opal told CRN.

That type of channel engagement "plays right into their partner strategy," Opal said of Microsoft. "Partners need to develop intellectual property or develop managed services around them."

Joe Foos, director of sales and marketing at ZAG Technical Services, a Microsoft partner based in San Jose, Calif., told CRN the release demonstrates Microsoft's continued commitment to expanding Office 365's share of the market.

"Instead of investing in additional third-party niche solutions, such as Slack and Asana or alternatives that are separated from traditional centralized identity management, customers can now keep all their intellectual property and processes secured and accessible on a single enterprise-class platform," Foos told CRN.

ZAG Technical Services will leverage Office 365 Planner as an additional tool in enabling clients to succeed, he said. The product will be added to the company’s Office 365 Migration Assessment engagements that help clients understand how best to seamlessly and successful transition to the cloud.