Microsoft Planner for Office 365, First Take: Shaping up to be useful

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Need to plan something that needs more organisation than a simple to-do list can offer, but don't want to get into the complexity of proper project management? Enter Microsoft Planner, an Office 365 service that lets you create cards for your tasks, put them in different 'buckets', tag them with half a dozen customisable coloured labels, lay them out in boards, and track them in a simple chart view.

You can use the buckets to organise a plan into topics or stages -- if you're planning an event, for example, you could have buckets for 'in advance', 'on the day' and 'after the event'; or if you're organising a syllabus you could have a bucket for each week of the course. You can move a task from one bucket to another, so you can alter the way you organise the plan as your needs change.

Cards can have checklists, comments, attachments, and links, as well as start and end dates, and you can assign them to specific people. The board view gives you an overview of all your tasks; the chart view gives you an overview, colour-coded to show what's in progress, late, completed, or not yet started. You can see just your own tasks, or go up to view all the plans you're part of in the hub.

Planner integrates with Groups, which are slowly spreading across Office 365 as the way of organising teams that don't neatly fit into an Active Directory group. You can convert Exchange distribution groups to a Group, or get a Group by creating a team site in SharePoint 2016. And when you add people to a Plan, that creates a Group, and you get a Plan to go with every Group.

The Groups you're in automatically appear in OneNote, and notifications arrive as email, whether that's from a group chat or the tasks in a plan. Plans can be public or private: the main difference is whether they show up when people search for plans; if the Group is public the Plan is public, and vice versa.

Planner doesn't really compare with Microsoft Project, because even though Project has a friendly web view for tasks it's really a much more powerful and complex portfolio project management tool. If you're building an oilrig or fitting out a new office building, Project has the full set of planning and resource management tools to cope with that.

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Planner is a much more ad hoc and social tool for planning, and the dashboard interface is more like Pinterest or Facebook than a Gantt chart. That's not to say it won't get more powerful tools down the line, and it's already far more structured and better for team collaboration than a personal to-do list system like Wunderlist or Outlook tasks. And yes, it is another addition to Microsoft's plethora of task systems, but the way Planner integrates with the latest generation of Microsoft cloud tools, like OneNote, Groups, and the new SharePoint document library means that it can be a common task system for many Microsoft services.

One of the most confusing things is how to get hold of Planner. It's been available in preview and some admins will have added it to their Office 365 tenant through the First Release program, so you may have seen it already. It's now released, and will be in all Office 365 E1, E3, E4 and E5 tenants but it isn't always visible in the app launcher (Microsoft says it's rolling out Planner to eligible tenants over the next few months). However, if you have an Office 365 account that's eligible, you can often just go to tasks.office.com and log in there to get started.

If you've used Asana, Basecamp or, especially, Trello, or developer management tools like Kanban boards, lots of things about Planner will seem familiar: cards for tasks laid out on a board, checklists and comments, a group calendar and document store.

What Planner does that's unique is build all this on top of the Office 365 tools you already have: the shared calendar is an Outlook calendar; the files live in SharePoint; you can take meetings notes and jot down ideas in a shared notebook that's a OneNote notebook that you can open alongside your existing OneNote notebooks; and you manage membership through Office 365 Groups. The chart view of tasks and progress is very nice too, because it means the Planner hub gives you an overview of all the schedules you have to care about as well as a way of navigating to the different plans.

More features needed

What Planner most needs is more sophisticated features and options, like templates, timelines, reminders, better calendar integration, the ability to assign tasks to multiple users, the ability to add external users to a plan (either to assign tasks or just to let them see the status of a plan), more sophisticated notifications (at the moment, you either get too many emails or too few, so you need to keep Planner open to refer to), and integration with services beyond Office and Microsoft.

Similarly, you can create events in the shared calendar for a plan in Outlook (online or in desktop Outlook), but tasks with due dates don't actually show up in the calendar.

The good news is that most of those features are already in development, or at least planned (as are mobile apps, integration with some commonly used education services and cosmetic options like the ability to add your own background image). Adding external users will possible as soon as Office Groups supports that.

Some features may come via third-party tools, because Planner is accessible through the Office Graph -- there's already a powerful tool, Apps4Pro Planner, that lets you convert Outlook emails and tasks straight into Planner, and adds reminders and templates. And the fact that plans, cards, and buckets are all objects in the Office Graph that developers can call through an API means that those integrations are entirely possible. There are dozens of connectors for Office 365 Groups to integrate services like Zendesk, GitHub, Envoy, Pivotal and Salesforce, as well Microsoft offerings like Dynamics CRM, and Planner should be able to take advantage of those.

Once those new features and third-party connections arrive, Planner could shape up to be a very useful tool. For now, it's a nice and simple group planning tool. You'll soon start to wish it did more, but hopefully it soon will.

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