The records management implications of the rise of Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams is an Office 365 application within which individuals belong to one or more Teams and can exchange messages through one of three different routes:

  • channels – messages are visible to all their fellow Team members;
  • private  channels  – messages are visible to a defined sub-set of their fellow Team members;
  • chats and group chats-  conversations on an ad hoc basis with any colleague or group of colleagues (regardless of whether or not those colleagues are part of their Team).

In a recent IRMS podcast Andrew Warland said that Teams had been adopted enthusiastically by colleagues across his organisation and the volume of communications sent via Team channels and chats had grown rapidly.   However the number of emails exchanged had not seemed to fall.    In contrast Graham Snow tweeted that he had seen figures of as much as an 85% reduction in email traffic as a result of the introduction of Teams.

This post looks at three questions in relation to MS Teams:

  • will correspondence going through Teams be any more accessible, and/or any easier to govern than correspondence going through email?
  • what proportions of an organisation’s correspondence is likely to be diverted from email to Teams?
  • on what basis should we make retention decisions on correspondence going through Teams channels, private channels and chats?

Will correspondence be more manageable in MS Teams than it has been in email?

The question of whether correspondence in Teams is likely to be more or less accessible and manageable than correspondence in email depends in large part upon which of the communication routes within Teams attracts the most correspondence:

  • correspondence going through ‘channels’ within Teams is likely to be both more accessible and easier to govern than email
  • correspondence going through private channels, group chats and chats is unlikely to be any more governable and accessible than email.

Conversation though channels

Channels are likely to be more manageable than email because the access model is so simple.   Every member of the Team can access everything in every channel of the Team.  Channels may however pose something of a digital preservation headache because the conversations are stored separately from any documents/files that are shared in the channel:

  • The messages/conversations in the channel are stored in MS Exchange, as a hidden set of files associated with the shared email account linked to the Office 365 Group that the Team is based on.
  • Any documents that are posted to the channel are stored in the document library which sits in the SharePoint team site associated with the Team.  By default there is one document library to hold the documents of all the channels of the Team.

Conversations through private channels

Private channels are a new feature of MS Teams, introduced in November 2019.  They function like channels with the main difference being that the access model is more granular and hence more complex.   Every private channel within a team has its own bespoke list of members able to access it.

The storage arrangements are not more complex for private channels than channels:

  • The correspondence from private channels is stored (as invisible files) in MS Exchange, attached to the email accounts of all of the participants in the private channel.
  • The documents are stored in a SharePoint document library. Each new private channel creates a new site collection in SharePoint, just to accommodate the one document library it needs to store the documents/ uploaded to the private channel.

In the December 2019 episode of the O365Eh! podcast  Dino Caputo described the angst in the SharePoint community at the fact that each new Teams private channel creates a new SharePoint site collection, and asked the Microsoft Teams product lead Roshin Lal Ramesan why it had been designed like that.  Roshin said it was to protect the confidentiality expectations of the participants of a private channel by making sure that the documents they send were not visible to the owner of the Team that the private channel is based in.

Microsoft have designed the storage arrangements for private channels to take account of the fact that it is not normally necessary or recommended for a Team owner to be the most senior person in the team.  Private channels give (for example) the possibility for senior managers  within a Team to have a channel for communications which the team owner cannot see into.

Roshin explained that by default the Team owner becomes the site collection administrator of the SharePoint site that is automatically created when a new Team and a new Office 365 group is created.   The Team owner can see all the content stored in that SharePoint site collection.  When a private channel is created within the Team a further new site collection is created, to which the Team owner has no access to unless they are themselves a participant in the private channel.

Private channels were introduced after a mountain of requests from customer organisations.  Organisations may play a high governance price for their request being granted.  As Private channels proliferate within Teams so they will also proliferate new sites in SharePoint.  In anticipation of this Microsoft have quadrupled the number of site collections that an organisation is able to have in their implementation, from 500,000 to 2 million.

Access to old private channels will degrade over time.  Microsoft’s model is that when the owner of a private channel leaves, the ownership of the group defaults to another member of the private channel.  Once the private channel ceases being used then access to the private channel will degrade, with progressively less and less people being able to access it.

Implementation scenarios for MS Teams

The question of whether channelling correspondence through Teams makes that correspondence more or less useful and manageable than email depends then on the balance between channels on the one hand, and private channels and chats on the other.

We can identify two different scenarios:

  • In scenario one channels are dominant, and the correspondence in MS Teams is more accessible and manageable than email correspondence.
  • In scenario two private channels and chats are dominant and correspondence is harder to govern over time than correspondence in email accounts, and hardly more accessible than it would have been had it gone through email.

Scenario 1:   Teams dominated by channels

In scenario 1 each organisational unit is given a Team, as are some cross-organisational projects.  Each team is relatively small which means that talk in a channel can be relatively frank.  Each Team defines a relatively small number of channels to cover its main areas of work.  Individuals continue to use their email account as their main source of correspondence, but also use their Teams client for quick communications.

In this scenario the Team owner rarely adds colleagues from outside their organisational unit to the Team, because that would give them the ability to see all the existing correspondence in all the channels.

Scenario 2:  Teams dominated by private channels and chats

In scenario 2 the organisation increases the average size of  Teams, giving each individual a bigger pool of people to interact with through channels and private channels.   The team still has a set of channels for matters that concern the whole team.  Because the Team is so much bigger there is a need for private channels, in part to minimise the noise for individual Team members from traffic that does not relate to them, and in part to enable team members to talk frankly.  The Teams client becomes more important than the email inbox for many colleagues, particularly those that are internally facing.

In this scenario some individuals external to the Team and even to the organisation can be added as members, visitors or guests so that a team can interact with them via a channel or private channel.  Individuals find that their Team’s client becomes more complex.  In it they see not just their own Team’s channels, and the private channels that they are part of, but also the channels (and perhaps some private channels) of other Teams that they have been added to.  Individuals learn to adapt to the new environment, turning on and off notifications from different channels depending on their perception of the relevance and usefulness of each channel/ private channel.

In this second scenario some individuals begin to watch their Teams client more closely than their email client, and send more messages through Teams than they do through email

The tension between governability and growth in MS Teams

A reading of the two scenarios above suggests that:

  • If an MS Teams implementation stays tightly governed ( as in the first scenario) then correspondence going through Teams is more accessible and manageable than it would have been had it gone through email, but the platform only takes a minority of correspondence traffic away from email.
  • If MS Teams governance is loosened (as in the second scenario) then Teams has a real chance of reaching parity with email for internal correspondence, but at a price that the correspondence is barely any more accessible than it would have been had it gone through email, and is harder to manage than it would have been had it gone through email

Predicting how much traffic MS Teams will take from email

Whether or not a particular individual experiences a fall in email traffic as a result of the introduction of MS Teams is likely to depend on who they do most of their communicating with:

  • Those individuals whose correspondence is predominantly with close colleagues who belong to the same Team may experience a significant switch of correspondence from email to MS Teams.
  • Those individuals whose correspondence tends to be with colleagues that are more widely spread group across the organisation will experience less of a reduction in emails.
  • Individuals whose correspondence is predominantly with people outside their organisation may notice little or no difference at all.

Even within one organisation you will see wide varieties of take up, with some internally facing teams using it for 80% of their communications but other externally facing teams using it for 20% or less of their correspondence.

The two main barriers that are likely to hold MS Teams back from becoming the main channel for written communications are that:

  • Teams is not designed for collaboration with people outside the organisation. It is true that Teams out of the box allows the owner of a Team to add a person external to the organisation to the Team, simply by adding their email address.  However once a person is added to a Team they can see all the past and present content of all the Channels in the team.   This may lead some organisations to turn off entirely the ability for Team owners to add external contacts to their Team.
  • Teams clients get more and more complex the more Teams an individual is a member of and the more channels and private channels they belong to and the more chats they are part of .  The AvePoint blog put it like this:

As any Microsoft Teams user knows, the “left-rail” of the Teams interface gets hard to organize once you’re part of many Teams and named group chats. “Chats” quickly fall out of view if they aren’t pinned to your left-rail and you get bombarded by chats every day (and who doesn’t?). Given that you cannot even search for named group Chats in the mobile clients, this experience can get infuriating if you’re often on the road.

Counterbalancing the above two tendencies is the fact that many people will find working out of a Teams client quicker and more effective than working out of an email account.  If and when more people in the organisation prefer working out of a Teams client than an email client then a tipping point may be reached when the Teams client replaces the email account as the main source of communication for a significant portion of the internal facing staff of the organisation.

It is possible that in some organisations the volume of traffic going through Teams could approach parity with email.  In order to reach this position of near parity with email Teams will have to become loosely governed.   Private channels, Group chats and one-to one chats will proliferate.  These are the three types of communication in Teams that (unlike Channels) offer no governance advantage over correspondence through email.

The retention of conversations in channels, private channels, and chats 

I have long held the belief that whatever correspondence/messaging tool eventually overtook or reached parity with email would be harder to manage and govern than email.

This is because the long term trend is for the velocity and volume of correspondence to increase.  When the velocity of correspondence increases the average value of individual messages reduces, even though the total value of all the correspondence of an organisation does not diminish.

The lower the average value of messages the harder it is to tell significant messages from insignificant messages.  A one-line message in a channel, private channel, group chat or chat only makes sense in the context of the rest of the messages in that channel, private channel, group chat or chat.

Donald Henderson kicked off a debate on the Records Management UK listserv  about how long to keep messages sent through MS Teams.  In his post Donald describes how he had first wanted to impose a regime of deleting all posts in teams after one month, but that faced opposition so his next suggestion was six months.  He went on to relate that:

It has now been suggested to me that some sections of the organisation will actually post ‘important stuff’ in chat – the example being quoted was interactions round a major capital building project, including with the contractor. My thoughts are that this sort of stuff starts to warrant retention as a record of the capital project, i.e. 25 years and possibly permanent retention depending on the project.

Donald is right. If your colleagues are using MS Teams for interactions with a contractor about a major capital project then those interactions should indeed be kept for the  retention period applicable to records of major capital projects.  The fact that colleagues in the organisation did not want Teams chats deleted after one months shows that Teams is serving as a record system for those interactions that are being conducted through Teams.   Donald went on to describe the downside of retaining conversations conducted through Teams as records:

Since it is really hard to get rid of individual items of chat (only the poster can delete their own posts), this raises the spectre of retaining every item in a Team site for the entire retention period. The thought of a subject access request or, probably worse, an FOI request for all the stupid GIFs that have been posted is just a bit concerning.

When organisations are faced with a high velocity correspondence system their first reaction is usually to apply a one-size fits all retention policy across the entire system.

A one-size fits retention policy will work for 90% of your email accounts/Teams/chats.

If you set a policy of retaining email/Teams correspondence for x years (with x being a number between two and seven) then that would work for 90 per cent of the email accounts and Teams channels/private channels/chats that you have.   The problem is that the 10% that it doesn’t work for contain the most important 10% of your correspondence.

The basis of records management is that different activities have different levels of impact and importance, and this should be reflected in retention periods.  We have found consistently over the past two decades that many decisions were documented only in email.  If Teams really takes off and approaches parity with email as a correspondence medium then you will find that some decisions are documented only in Teams.

The pragmatic approach is to manage by exception.  This way we can still set a one size fits all retention period for email and Teams but we only apply it to 90% of email accounts, 90% of  Teams, and 90% of individuals using Teams chat.    An exception should be made for the 10% of email accounts, Teams and Teams chat accounts that are used by those people who have responsibility for our organisation’s most strategic/valuable/important/impactful work.   Choosing which individuals and which Teams constitute that 10% is a matter of good records management judgement, and is the type of judgement that people in our profession are qualified to make.

To accompany such a policy we should reserve the right to use human and/or automated means to identify and separate out trivial and personal correspondence from that 10%.

One thought on “The records management implications of the rise of Microsoft Teams

  1. Great post James, thanks for mentioning my comment about the growth of Teams and the impact it had on email traffic. We monitored all Office 365 activity from the Office 365 Admin portal under Reports – Usage and recommend that organisations do this regularly and keep a record or screenshot the charts so they can make comparisons over a longer time period. In the period that I was doing this monitoring (until January 2019) we saw a rapid growth in Teams one-to-one chat. As we controlled the creation of Teams (by disabling the ability for end users to create Teams in MS Teams) there was only sluggish growth in Teams channel messages. There was constant email usage during this time. I have not seen the Usage reports for that organisation for over a year now so I don’t know what they show now but my expectation would be that the volume of emails would have started to decrease somewhat as people used one-to-one chat rather than email. Having said that, we knew that staff used unofficial chat applications (FB Messenger, Whatsapp) extensively before the arrival of MS Teams, so it’s hard to tell how much of that was transferred to MS Teams (where it could be tracked).

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