The impact of Microsoft Teams on records management strategies

Every organisation has a records management strategy. Regardless of whether or not they make that strategy explicit in a strategy document, their strategy is implicit in the choices they make about how they go about applying retention rules to the content in their business applications:

  • they might be seeking to try to move documents and messages needed as a record into one business application that is optimised for recordkeeping;
  • they might be seeking to intervene in several, most or all of their business applications so that each of these applications are optimised to manage their own records;
  • they might be seeking to manage records ‘in place’ within the native applications that they arise in, even when an application has a structure and a metadata schema that is sub-optimal for recordkeeping.

Each of these rival strategies has their pros and cons. Each is a legitimate records management approach.

This situation is made more complex by the arrival of the cloud suites from tech giants Microsoft and Google. Each cloud suite is a combination of several different document management, collaboration, filesharing and messaging applications. Each cloud suite embodies an implicit records management strategy. The strategy is discernable by the retention capabilities that the suite is equipped with, and by how those capabilities relate to the applications within the suite. This opens up the possibility that an organisation might be expounding one type of records management strategy, but be deploying a cloud suite that is informed by one of the rival strategies.

It is clear from the way that the Microsoft (Office) 365 cloud suite has been set up that Microsoft have adopted an ‘in place’ approach to records management. In the MS 365 suite no one application is superior for records management purposes than any other. Retention functionality sits in the Compliance centre, outside of any one application. Retention rules can be set in the Compliance centre and applied to any type of aggregation in any of the collaboration/document management/messaging/filesharing applications within the suite.

In the early years of Office 365 it may have been possible for an organisation to deploy the suite whilst continuing with a strategy of moving all documents and messages needed as a record into one specific business application that is optimised for recordkeeping. Since the coming of MS Teams this no longer appears possible.

MS Teams deployed as an organisation’s primary collaboration system

The phenomenal rise in adoption of MS Teams over the past two years is prompting some fundamental changes in the records management strategies of those organisations who have adopted it as their primary collaboration application:

  • prior to the coming of MS Teams an organisation would have been able, if it so wished, to configure their main collaboration system with a records management friendly structure and metadata schema. This kind of ‘records management by design’ is not possible in MS Teams;
  • prior to the coming of MS Teams most large organisations tended to deploy a document management application as their main collaboration system. Microsoft Teams is a messaging application. The organisation has therefore gone from trying to manage messages in a document management application, to trying to manage documents in a messaging tool.

These two changes are related: the reason why MS Teams is not as configurable as previous generations of collaboration systems is precisely because it is primarily a messaging system in which content is pushed to individuals and teams via Chat and Channels.

The impact of MS Teams on an organisation’s records management strategy

Let us think of how the records management strategy of a typical large organisation may have evolved over the past two decades:

  • in the middle of the first decade of this century they may have implemented a corporate electronic document and records management system (EDRMS) and said to their staff ‘if you want a document or a message to be treated as a record, save it into our EDRMS’.
  • near the start of the second decade of the 21st century they may have wanted to introduce a document management system that is more collaborative in nature. They may have replaced their EDRMS with a tool such as Microsoft SharePoint. They might have said to their staff ‘if you want a document or message to be treated as a record, move it into a SharePoint document library’.
  • in 2019 or 2020 they may have rolled out Microsoft Teams, giving every individual a Teams Chat client and every team a Team with a set of channels into which messages and documents can be posted. They may now say to their staff ‘it you have an important document or message then post it through a Team channel’.

Here we have some elements of continuity, but also some important elements of discontinuity.

The main element of continuity is that the organisation is still encouraging staff to contribute every document or message needed as a record to one particular application. They are still making a distinction between:

  • an application that they designate as being a record system (and hence will apply their retention principles and retention rules to);
  • other applications that they do not regard as record systems (and hence do not commit to apply their retention principles and rules to).

The element of discontinuity lies in the nature of the rationale behind this distinction.

When the organisation had implemented an EDRM or SharePoint as its corporate document management system and asked staff to move any documents and messages needed as a record into that system they could argue that they were taking a ‘records management by design’ approach. They will have endeavoured to configure their corporate document management systems with a logical structure that reflects (as best they could) their business processes and to which they will have attempted to link appropriate retention rules and access rules.

They could justify the routine deletion of content in other applications by arguing that the records management by design approach relies on important documents and messages being placed into an application that has records management frameworks configured into it.

MS Teams and the decline of records management by design

For most of the past ten years SharePoint has dominated the market for corporate document management systems and hence dominated the market for systems through which an organisation could apply a records management by design approach.

SharePoint has been on a journey. It started the decade as an on-premise, stand-alone document management system which end users would directly interact with. It ends the decade as a component part in a cloud suite. Its role in that cloud suite is more and more becoming that of a back-end system supplying document management capability to MS Teams.

An organisation that configured SharePoint as their corporate document management system with a carefully designed information architecture will find that structure sidelined and deprecated by the introduction of MS Teams. Each new MS Team is linked to a new SharePoint document library in which all documents posted through its channels will be kept. In effect this brings in a parallel structure of document libraries to rival those previously set up for those same users in SharePoint.

At the time of writing it does not appear possible to do records management by design with Microsoft Teams. The information architecture of MS Teams is not suited for it, and neither is the way that most organisations roll Teams out.

Information architecture of MS Teams

In MS Teams each Team is a silo. There is no overarching structure to organise the Teams. Overarching structures are useful in any sort of collaboration system, not just to serve as a navigation structure for end-users to find content, but also to place each collaboration area into some sort of context to support the ongoing management and retention of its content. There does exist, in the Microsoft 365 Teams Admin Centre, a list of the Teams in the tenancy. This list is only accessible to those who have admin rights in the tenancy. Most organisations give admin rights to only a very small number of people. The list gives an information governance/records management team precious little information about each Team. It gives a basic listing of the name of the team and the number of channels, members, owners and guests it has. (see this recent IRMS podcast with Robert Bath for a fuller discussion of these issues).

Roll out of MS Teams

In the past organisations typically used a staggered roll out to deploy their corporate document management /collaboration system (EDRMS, SharePoint etc.). Such systems would be rolled out tranche by tranche, to give time for the implementation team to configure the specific areas of the system that each team in the tranche was going to use. This was necessary in order to bridge the gaps between the organisation’s broad brush information architecture frameworks and the specific work and specific documentation types of the area concerned.

Microsoft Teams is a primarily a messaging system. It is a communication tool. It gives individuals the ability to send messages to other individuals through their Chat client and to share posts with their close colleagues through a Team channel. Its aim is to speed up communications and to enable colleagues separated in space by remote working to keep closely connected. Organisations may have been happy to stagger the roll out of a document management system but they are not typically happy to stagger the roll out of a messaging system because to do so would exclude some staff from communication flows.

There is a design element to Teams. There are choices to be made as what is the the optimum size for a Team, as to how many different channels to set up in any team, and what to set channels up for. But there are two significant limitations to the scope of these design choices.

The first limitation arises from the fact that the design choices relate to Teams channels, whereas most MS Teams traffic tends to go through Teams Chat. There are no design choices to be made in the implementation of individual Teams Chat clients.

The second limitation arises from the fact that however you design Teams and Teams channels, you cannot overcome the fundamental architectural weakness of Teams, that each Team has to be a silo. This is the key difference between SharePoint/EDRMS systems on the one hand and MS Teams on the other.

The access model in MS Teams

SharePoint is a document management system. The access model for SharePoint sites and document libraries is flexible. You can make the site/library a silo if you wish by restricting access to a a small number of people, but equally you can open up access widely. You can reduce the risk of opening access widely by confining the right to contribute, edit and delete content to a small group whilst opening view access to a wider group.

MS Teams is a messaging system first and foremost with a document management component (provided by SharePoint) as a secondary element.

You can only view content in a given Team if you are a member of a that Team. Each Team member has access to every channel within the team (apart from private channels) and to the Team’s document library. Each Team member can contribute posts to channels and can add and delete items from the document library. Broadening the membership of a Team is therefore more risky than opening up access to a document library in a SharePoint implementation, because everyone that you make a member of the Team has full edit and contribute rights in the Team.

A further disincentive to adding extra members to the Team lies in the fact that by making someone a member of the Team you are exposing the individual to the flow of messages in and out of the channels of that Team. There is a catch-22 here. The more you widen membership of a Team the more you drive message traffic away from Teams channels and into Teams Chat. This is because the wider the membership the greater the likelihood that any given message will be uninteresting, irrelevant or inappropriate for some members. If you keep the membership small you may increase the percentage of traffic going through the channel but you decrease the number of people to whom that traffic is accessible.

Microsoft Teams and the notion of ‘retrospective governance’

The first time I heard the phrase ‘retrospective governance’ was in the chat in the margins of a recent IRMS webinar. An organisation had carried out a corporate wide roll-out of MS Teams out virtually over night in 2019, and the records manager reported having spent the subsequent year trying to put in place some ‘retrospective governance’ by identifying which organisational unit each Team belonged to, what it was being used for, whether it was needed, what retention rule should apply to it. Numerous other participants reported similar experiences.

Retrospective governance is not exclusive to Microsoft Teams. We can for example see retrospective governance in the use of analytics/eDiscovery tools to make and process decisions on legacy file shares (shared drives).

In the past an organisation may have decided to apply retrospective governance to data in legacy applications and repositories, but such retrospective governance efforts were very much peripheral to the main thrust of their records management strategy which was centred on the application into which it had configured its recordkeeping frameworks. After the coming of MS Teams retrospective governance suddenly moves to the heart of an organisation’s records management efforts. The rise of MS Teams means that within the MS 365 suite it is not possible to configure records management frameworks into one application in such a way as to give that application records management primacy over other applications.

The in-place records management strategy

The in place records management approach holds that at the current point in time it is not feasible to consistently move all significant business documents and messages into an application equipped with a structure/schema that is optimised for records management. There also exist many classes of business application (including email systems and all other types of messaging system) whose structure and schema simply cannot be optimised for record keeping. Therefore an organisation’s document management, messaging, filesharing and collaboration applications should be treated as record systems even if the structure and metadata schema of most of these applications is sub-optimal for recordkeeping.

Unless and until it becomes possible either a) to consistently and comprehensively move records into an application that is optimised for recordkeeping, or b) to configure each business application so that it has a structure and schema that is optimal for recordkeeping, then we also need c) a viable strategy for managing records in applications that have a structure and schema that is sub-optimal for recordkeeping.

Dialogue with Microsoft about their execution of the in-place records management strategy

The records management profession has put a tremendous amount of work over the past 25 years into building a knowledge base for the records management approaches that involve optimising one business application for recordkeeping. There is also a small amount of literature about the model where you configure records management frameworks into several, many or all business applications. The profession has put much less work into defining best practice for the in-place records management approach. This is understandable, because it was not our first choice of model. But its absence is especially noticeable in discussions with Microsoft about records management.

The in-place strategy embodied in the MS 365 cloud suite is one in which applications are deployed without any attempt to ensure that the structure and schema of those applications are optimised for recordkeeping. Organisations apply retention rules to the aggregations that naturally occur within those different native applications (email accounts, SharePoint sites, One Drive accounts, Teams Channels, Teams Chat accounts etc.) and ask individuals (or train machines) to identify and label any items that are exceptions to the retention rule set on the aggregation that they are housed in.

We can point Microsoft to a truck load of best practice standards in records management but almost all of it has been written from a point of view that assumes an organisation or a vendor is trying to design records management frameworks into one business application. There is little or no literature on the in-place strategy that Microsoft are trying to implement in their cloud suite. We have nothing against which to judge Microsoft’s execution of the in-place strategy in their suite, and nothing to guide organisations attempting to work with that strategy in their implementation of the suite.

Filling the gap in records management best practice

I am writing this on New Years Day. How about a collective new year’s resolution to start building a knowledge base for the in-place records management strategy? This should prompt us to start thinking through the key considerations involved in managing records across multiple document management, messaging, filesharing and collaboration applications, many of which have structures and schemes that are neither optimised nor optimisable for recordkeeping.

This should supplement but not replace the existing knowledge base we have for the other two main records management strategies.