Losing the Last Name, First Name Legacy


A recent post by MVP Mark Vale describes how to use synchronization transformation rules in AADConnect to change the last name, first name format (for example, Smith, James) for display names to a more user-friendly first name last name format (our example becomes James Smith) for accounts as they synchronize to Azure Active Directory from an on-premises Active Directory. The lastname, firstname format is very popular in large-scale on-premises deployments where more control can be exercised over the displayname format. You don’t have the same degree of control in Office 365.

The Default Office 365 DisplayName

The idea behind transforming displaynames is driven by the fact that Office 365 uses first name last name as its default way to refer to users, including to form the default alphabetical avatar that appears when a photo isn’t available for a user account. Or, as shown in Figure 1, when an Office 365 app gets it wrong (in this case, the Admin Center) and forgets how to find the user photo.

Office 365 Gravtar
Figure 1: TR = Tony Redmond

If the last name, first name format is used for displaynames, my avatar shows up as RT. You can now see the problem. I would always know myself as TR, but never as RT.

Other apps, like Outlook Web App (Figure 2) are better at finding the user photo. It’s always best inside Office 365 when you populate user accounts with photos. And if you have photos for tenant users, you should have photos for guests too.

OWA avatar
Figure 2: OWA find the user photo

@Mentions Are a Big Influence

In any case, the idea is that it’s nicer and more user-friendly for people if they can refer to their peers by their first name in the @mentions used in apps like Teams and email. Certainly, it does seem better to say something like “Perhaps @James Smith can help” instead of “Perhaps @Smith, James can help.” Or even, if you work in an organization that has a very large GAL and needs to differentiate people who share a common name, “Perhaps @Smith, James (Operations Dept x1514) can help.”

Thinking and Testing Required

Changing the displayname format is not something to do lightly. You might think that it’s a simple matter of throwing off the shackles of on-premises directory organization, but it could have consequences such as creating problems for user documentation or the help desk, or even confusing users as they try to find other people in the GAL after they move to Office 365.

Remember that a change made to Azure Active Directory (which is what you do if you change a synchronization rule) affects everywhere in Office 365 where a user displayname appears. You can’t have a situation where the GAL is ordered by the traditional last name and @mentions are auto-magically transformed into user-friendly first names. Some thinking, planning, and testing is needed before you take the plunge. This is especially so in situations where the organization includes large numbers of people who share last names. Consider how a change will affect people in different countries instead of assuming that everything will go well because the new format works for your name.

Easing the Way to the Cloud

Overall, if you can make the transition from the old displayname format to the default used in Office 365, you’ll probably ease the transition from on-premises to Office 365. It’s something worth thinking about.

For more information about setting up and running AADConnect to link an on-premises Exchange organization with Azure Active Directory, see Chapter 3 in Office 365 for IT Pros.


3 Replies to “Losing the Last Name, First Name Legacy”

  1. I discovered that this problem can be overcome by amending the names of contacts in the Outlook address book to last name-first name (eg, “Smith-John” for “John Smith”) – Outlook then sorts the contact addresses by last name (eg. “Smith”), while the display name remains “John Smith”.

  2. Our company just changed. Totally trashes the utility of the GAL. You have to know the first name the person is listed under in the GAL ( Robert, Rob, Bob? ). What is the value of sorting any list by first name?

  3. I agree with Lawrence Nikolaus. In an organization with 2000 employees and clients who email using both LN/FN and FN/LN format, this is a nightmare.

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