The importance of starting with OneDrive

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The importance of starting with OneDrive

I am going to make an argument that OneDrive is the most important application for you to focus on when starting a new migration of files to Microsoft 365. Not Teams, and not SharePoint. OneDrive. I recommend starting here for a variety of reasons–and maybe not all of the ones you expect.

Walk before you run

Organizations that are coming from a legacy file server are very used to working in a certain way, to the point that they might not understand the benefits of moving to a cloud-based file sharing and collaboration solution at all. Even if they understand it intellectually, they don’t get it in an experiential sense until they have some small wins that they can then build upon–and OneDrive can do that for you. People also tend to have trouble shifting their habits toward working with files in a web browser or in a more “modern application” like Teams. OneDrive can help you there, too.

Teams = chat & channels + files + wiki + OneNote + Planner + many other apps. Granted there exists a lot of benefit to having this “parallel access” to related apps and services all through one UI, but because of the radical shift it represents for most organizations, there is just a lot more for users to “chew on” and digest when it comes to Teams. A lot more questions and confusion that needs sorting out. A lot of “I don’t get it” and “this seems like I’m just adding more work to what I already do.” Used correctly, the truth is that Teams can save you precious time, but that is not obvious at the outset.

On the other hand, OneDrive is just working with files–which is a very familiar experience–hardly different from what people are already used to doing. Therefore the initial switch is not difficult for users to understand and they can dip their toes into the cloud from there.

Old and new: a comparison

Remember that people are often used to working like this: they click on their shared network drive, go to the directory where the files live, and open a file to work with it directly in Word or Excel or whatever. Easy.

In Teams, this experience is a bit different. They are now navigating to their Team, then to the channel, then to the files tab to find that same file. If they click on the file it will now open in Teams–which is less than ideal, especially if the user switches focus back to a different conversation thread or a chat window temporarily. It is, sadly, too easy to lose your place in the document when you switch back–it loads the list of files from the beginning, and you have to navigate back into the file and find your spot all over again.

Optionally, the user can go through another step to open it in a separate web browser or in the desktop client (and this is almost always preferred anyway). But in their eyes, this is just more steps to get at the same file and work with it the way they want to.

Now taking it further, assume they need to share one of those files with someone who is not in the Team or who is outside the organization. The confusion and questions continue to multiply. Do they have to invite this person to the whole Team? Do they download a copy and then upload it as an attachment to an email? But then we’re right back to the same old behaviors again!

The problem is that they didn’t start with OneDrive. This is where they should start–in order to learn all the fundamentals of working with files in the cloud on a small scale, and in a safe space.

OneDrive is–again–just files, and is very intuitive to use: especially with the ability to sync files to the desktop / file explorer–and this allows users to maintain their familiar work space while getting other instant benefits besides. The files are now backed up and protected in the cloud, users can access them from anywhere and on any device. Furthermore, they don’t have to use attachments and “save as” or manage version sprawl (i.e. they can learn to work with sharing links and co-authoring).

How I left my file server years before everyone else

As an early adopter of the technology I have been with OneDrive even before it was one of the better cloud-based file sharing apps out there. Back when it was still called SkyDrive, DropBox had a far superior sync engine at that time with fewer limitations and with the ability to sync only specific files, leaving others in the cloud. With SkyDrive/OneDrive you had to sync everything or nothing (oh except the syncing would frequently break, too).

Nevertheless, much was possible and working through the web browser was just fine by me for many things. Even with the limitations back then, it still beat using a VPN or Remote Desktop experience to get at my files.

But these days OneDrive works beautifully–syncing is solid, files on-demand means that my data doesn’t have to live on my physical device at all, unless I want it to. And, the file sharing experience is seamless whether I work in File Explorer on the desktop, or in a web browser.

Notice the sameness!

I honestly didn’t care if none of my other co-workers were yet utilizing this amazing technology (I suspect at least a few of them had DropBox or Box accounts however), I just adopted the tool without permission and without remorse, because it helped me do my work from wherever and whenever I wanted. Back then I hadn’t even gotten into the mobile app yet–but nowadays this is yet another huge boon that I am often grateful for!

Scaling up

You might say, “Well that’s great for your files but when you needed to collaborate with others you are still bound back to the server anyway!”

Not so. If I was the point person on a document or project involving a set of documents, I simply removed that group of files from the server, placed it into my OneDrive, and shared that folder out to the other people I was working with.

Some orgs want to discourage everyone from saving items to their own personal spaces (Desktop, My Docs, OneDrive, whatever)–but in my opinion this is not a big deal, especially for work that only touches a few hands anyway before it is published or pushed out for a wider audience. The only reason this kind of thing was discouraged in the old world was because it kept information in silos: nobody else could get at the files on your desktop.

But guess what? With OneDrive, people can get to those files. The original problem has therefore been removed.

Or you know, just use Search!

Others followed my example, because let’s be honest: nobody likes using the VPN anyway. Soon we had many engineers and technicians sharing with each other using the more modern method, right from OneDrive. If I had captured some critical notes into my OneNote notebook (stored in OneDrive), I could just invite other techs to that same notebook so that they could share in my knowledge. I received links to their notebooks in return.

If I had a network diagram that I maintained, I would share it from my OneDrive. Or an assessment document. Or if I had presented a PowerPoint… Getting the picture? Anything and everything I worked on = OneDrive.

However you can scale this up even further, too. OneDrive will also allow you to create Shared libraries (these are provisioned in SharePoint of course), but this means that you can have an experience much more like your old mapped network drives! Multiple people can now see the same file and folder structure from their own OneDrive. Plus, you don’t have to rely on IT to set this container up for you–you can just invite people yourself on the fly.

Similar to a mapped network drive in file explorer, this location will appear in the left navigation, beneath your “own” file libraries. Later when you become a member of various Teams, those will populate in here too.

And of course, since the shared library works exactly the same as your own personal OneDrive in all other ways, you can also sync it to the local computer so that you can work with it in file explorer, just like everything else you’re used to doing (with the exception of LOB application data–do not store that in synced locations–you probably still need SMB shares for that).

Thus there is truly no difference between this experience and the old mapped drives of yore–and it is consistent whether you work on the desktop or on the web. Heck, even the mobile app will grant you access to these locations!

The last nugget worth drawing out here in case it’s not already obvious, is that OneDrive is also your single pane of glass into all of the files that are or will eventually be stored in Microsoft 365. Whether they are stored in Teams, SharePoint or whatever–if you have access to it at all, you can surface it right from OneDrive.


I quite literally never have to leave this app to work with my files. This remains true on every platform–web, mobile, the desktop/file explorer. OneDrive truly is THE files app for Microsoft 365. Sure I may open a file in Teams sometimes when I find myself in that context, but 9 times out of 10 I just use my OneDrive to open items–whether they live in my own OneDrive directory or in a shared library. And I think that is what many people will prefer–especially when they first start out, and they are coming from a traditional file server.

OneDrive is a killer adoption driver for the same reasons that DropBox is one of the top Shadow IT apps out there. People are generally delighted by the fact that they can work with their own files from anywhere, even a mobile device! Plus, we unlock other amazing features like scanning paper documents or even whiteboards directly into OneDrive using your phone’s camera, so they are searchable and accessible. All very cool stuff.

Start small. Don’t forget that a lot of the knowledge that users gain with OneDrive will translate into Teams and SharePoint down the road. But nothing beats OneDrive for quick wins that get people interested and engaged in moving away from their file server sooner than later.

Comments (8)

  • Oleg K Reply

    I remember using SkyDrive :) And actually, i started using it after trying out and disliking slow sync times of Dropbox (at least here in Eastern Europe at that time). I used it to replace my flash drive that i was having on me for some docs and files. I also remember that main selling point for us when rolling out OneDrive was showing a user how you put a file into OneDrive, then pull it up on their phone, edit it and see edits on PC :)

    February 19, 2020 at 1:21 pm
  • Chris Claessens Reply

    Excellent article again, as always Alex! You are very right about OneDrive :-D!

    February 20, 2020 at 5:57 am
  • Michael Brissenden Reply

    Great write up Alex, I am also an early adopter and been using it since 2014 and couldn’t live without it now, its rock solid and our clients are also loving it.

    February 23, 2020 at 5:44 pm
  • Tracy Ratz Reply

    Question with using onedrive. Is there a native report or a way to see all files shared tenant wide from one drive from each user? I know that there is a report for each user but not tenant wide.

    March 1, 2020 at 5:02 pm
    • Alex Reply

      No native report, just as there exists no native report that will tell you every file ever attached by email and sent out. However you may consider building this using the graph; see this really awesome article over at practical365.

      March 2, 2020 at 11:13 am
      • Tracy Ratz Reply

        While I get that i can’t see every attachment leaving, i do want to account for two things abuse and when staff leaves.

        Part of your excellent documentation is limiting staff via conditional access to saving everything in onedrive. That didn’t exactly sit well with staff who thought that their files are theirs and not the companies. Since some staff members share files with external parties, there is nothing short of limiting them (also can’t implement WIP as the files are needed for outside vendors). I just want to see if people are sharing the files correctly or not in terms of abuse and not externally sharing every file so that they can’t download them and work with them outside of conditional access policies..

        The other reason is with in terms of removing an account. If someone leaves the company and used the sharing capability of onedrive a lot instead of teams and sharepoint, i want to make sure that i am not limiting the productivity by removing the account. While i would move the files into their supervisors one drive, the links will break once the account has been removed if this person had a lot of files linked, productivity would be lost while the new owner either moves the files to sharepoint and re-establishes the links to the correct parties. Should there be a report this way the owner can reestablish the links (if i change the owner to the supervisor, will the external sharing report continue to work?


        March 3, 2020 at 9:24 am
        • Alex Reply

          WIP should be fine, it will not harm vendors who work with files. The only way you can be impacted by WIP is if you are a licensed member of the tenant, and you fall under the scope of a WIP policy. As for Conditional Access similarly you can scope the policies such that external users are excluded from the requirements. Only impose the restrictions that you want against the audiences that you want.

          The company gets to decide what to do with corporate data (so the users feelings about whose data it is doesn’t matter at the end of the day–company makes that call), and just because the company is taking steps to protect its data on trusted devices, etc., doesn’t mean that people can’t have personal storage locations such as their own OneDrive account (consumer) or DropBox, etc. They just won’t be able to save corporate information to those locations with WIP in place. Or at least discouraged if you use the allow override option.

          As there is no native built-in report you will be looking toward a custom approach. It is possible to achieve. If you want this feature built-in, head over to uservoice for OneDrive!

          March 3, 2020 at 9:44 am
    • Oleg K Reply

      Here’s an updated script from Vasil Michev

      I have never been asked to provide a list of all attached files in emails in Exchange, but i did receive a request a few times to show all shared files in OneDrive and i couldn’t. OneDrive is perceived as a file storage service and such inquire is natural.

      March 2, 2020 at 3:23 pm

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