How Office 365 challenges traditional records management practices

If your organisation is using SharePoint on-premise now, or just starting out with Office 365, it is important to understand how the Office 365 ecosystem will challenge traditional ways of managing records practices while at the same time delivering a transformational all-digital experience for end users.

SharePoint On-Premises

When configured well, SharePoint on-premises (e.g. versions up to SharePoint 2016) allowed organisations to manage unstructured (i.e., document-based) content through a hierarchy of site collections – sites/sub-sites – document libraries – (folders/document sets) – documents.

In on-premise SharePoint environments, document libraries could be used to store and manage records, thereby becoming the logical containers or aggregations of records, similar to ‘files’ in traditional EDRM systems.

The Office 365 ecosystem

Office 365 changes and challenges the on-premises model of SharePoint by adding new ways of working to standard SharePoint team and publishing sites. These new ways of working include:

  • Office 365 Groups, each of which has a dedicated SharePoint site
  • OneDrive for Business, a personal version of SharePoint
  • Yammer
  • Skype for Business
  • Delve
  • Planner
  • Sway

Why is this important? 

SharePoint has been clearly positioned as Microsoft’s online document management engine. SharePoint, not network file shares, is the document management future. And so, by extension, it becomes the future location for the management of digital records for any organisation that subscribes to Office 365.

From both the business and end-user points of view, SharePoint provides easy-to-use and more efficient content management and collaboration capabilities allowing users to access and use a range of content anywhere, anytime, on any device. Coupled with collaboration options such as Office 365 Groups, Yammer, and Skype for Business, information is now available across a number of different applications within the same single ecosystem.

From a records management point of view, this new way of working challenges the idea that information can be stored in the context of a single function, activity or transaction that created it. Instead, it supports the concept that digital information cannot truly be assigned to a single function or context; its context may also depend on the context of the person seeking to access it.

That is, how one person stores information is not necessarily how others may expect to find or use it. Think of the parallels with eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn and similar products – algorithms present information to you, often in a ‘feed’, based on what the application knows about you, not how other people store that information.

‘Modern’ Team Sites

The most striking change with ‘modern’ team sites in SharePoint Online (compared with SharePoint 2013 and earlier) is the disappearance of the ribbon menu and the simplification of the user-experience to be more or less identical with OneDrive for Business.

When any library is selected (and before a document is selected), the user is presented with the common options: New (Folder, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Link), Upload, Quick Edit, and Sync.

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When a document is selected, the user is presented with a context-specific menu offering again commonly used options: Open, Share, Get a link, Download, Delete, Pin to top, Move to, Copy to, Rename, Version History, Alert me, and Check out.

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The familiar Library Settings, previously located on the ribbon menu, are now found via the Office 365 settings ‘cog’.

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Microsoft have also changed the look of SharePoint Online sites and provided a new ‘SharePoint’ landing page to help users access all the sites they are following, and also present suggestions for sites to follow. In other words, the system understands the user’s context and presents content suggestions, the same way Facebook users are invited to befriend people.

From a records management point of view, little has changed with document libraries in team sites. SharePoint Online continues to offer all the same features as before:

  • Almost unlimited metadata options allowing multiple metadata-based views to be set up
  • Unique, persistent document IDs
  • Folders and document sets (although the latter are even harder to set up than they were)
  • Versioning (and more efficient storage of versions)
  • Popularity trends and per-document views
  • Detailed audit trails
  • Access/permission controls
  • Legal compliance/retention and disposal
  • Powerful search
  • Full integration with Office but now allowing users to save directly by default to SharePoint and OneDrive by default.
  • Hyperlinkable documents
  • Easy sharing

While it is still possible in SharePoint Online to manage records out the box, the other elements that make up the Office 365 ecosystem provide a much broader and complex environment for the storage and management of records. SharePoint Online is just one component of this environment.

Office 365 Groups

Office 365 Groups provide a way for a group of people within the organisation – as well as external users – to discuss and share information.

  • They are similar to Active Directory (AD) Distribution Groups in the sense that they are a pre-defined organisational group designed to receive information.
  • They are different in that, instead of being just the recipient of information, users (and people who join the group at a later date) can see all discussions that have been sent to all members and access any Group documents.

Office 365 Groups are made up of two main content elements: ‘Conversations’ email-based threads and ‘Files’.

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  • Conversation threads are based on simple email exchanges presented in Outlook – currently it is not possible to create folders in the group.
  • The Files option in Office 365 Groups is a SharePoint site that allows the group to store, share and collaborate on any unstructured content.

Groups also include a calendar and a group Notebook (which opens OneNote Online in the Group SharePoint site).

Office 365 Groups content is stored either within the context of the Group’s email-based conversations or in unstructured content stored in an associated SharePoint site.

Office 365 Groups SharePoint sites are visible in the user’s list of SharePoint sites, making it easy to get back to the Group’s site or its conversations.

OneDrive for Business

OneDrive for Business is built on the SharePoint engine. The consumer version of OneDrive has been around for a few years and is a direct competitor to the likes of Google Drive, iDrive, DropBox, Box and so on.

OneDrive for Business, the online replacement for ‘personal’ network drives, allows users to store, synchronise and share ‘personal’ work information through an interface that in Office 365 is now almost identical with modern team sites (less the Library Settings).

As with personal drives on network drives, content stored by users on OneDrive for Business is inaccessible unless shared with others. Organisations have only 30 days by default to do something about the user’s OneDrive for Business content when they cease to be an employee, before the content is deleted.

Options to manage the otherwise hidden content of a departed user’s OneDrive for Business account include allowing the user’s manager to review and if necessary move or delete it, allowing an authorised person in IT to review it, and/or backing it up to other storage so it is not deleted.

Yammer

While the long-term future of Yammer is unclear in the face of Office 365 Groups, Yammer may still exist and capture information and records for a time to come.

Skype for Business

In addition to Yammer and the conversation options provided through Office 365 Groups, Skype for Business provides yet another option to discuss and share information including via voice and/or video calls.

Delve

All the options described above provide a function-rich environment to store and manage unstructured content and collaborate with other people both within and external to the organisation. But how to make sense of all this information?

Depending on licensing, Delve provides a way to find content that may be relevant to the user.

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Delve suggests a range of content that may be of interest (based on the user’s profile, connections and content created or accessed), and provides an analysis of the user’s activity as recorded in Outlook, the calendar and other actions.

Challenges with managing records in Office 365

While Office 365 provides a transformative digital experience for end users, managing the records created and stored in various parts of Office 365 presents new challenges for records managers.

For example, there is far less ability to control the way content is stored or described in specific, pre-defined and/or metadata-driven aggregations and contexts. Users are likely to use whatever application is the most appropriate or convenient. For example, they may use OneDrive for Business to create and store large volumes of content, hidden away from corporate view. They may even share content from this application, including with external users.

The default settings in SharePoint, if not disabled, provide end-users with considerable latitude to create new SharePoint sites and Office 365 Groups, in addition to their personal OneDrive for Business sites, to store, manage and share rich digital content including with external users. In reality, these settings probably need to be disabled to prevent uncontrolled growth in the environment.

Even if records managers (as Site Collection Administrators) have oversight and control of the creation of SharePoint Online team sites, some questions arise:

  • How will they extend this control to SharePoint sites created to support Office 365 Groups, or the conversations that take place within those groups?
  • What about content stored in and shared from OneDrive for Business?
  • How will it be possible in the future to bring together all information about a given function/activity for disposal or disposition actions, especially if it’s not all stored in the one aggregation?

Good SharePoint (and Office 365) governance requires a good balance of control. Too much control and users will be put off using and benefiting from the ecosystem. Too little and the ecosystem may become uncontrollable but possibly very ‘lively’ in terms of content profusion.

Ideally, users should feel that they have the ability to manage their information within a lightly controlled environment – for example, SharePoint site owners cannot create new Sites (to prevent the massive proliferation of sites) but they can create document libraries (thereby reducing IT administrative controls).

Can analytics help with managing records?

Analytics via the Office Graph may provide a way to bring together information and records in context, a context (or contexts) which may be unforeseen by the person who created the content in the first instance. For example, a user may store information in a document library, unaware of its relevance or similarity to others in the organisation. Analytics may be able to connect the two, or the different people doing similar things.

At this stage, Analytics does not seem to provide the ability to bring together all information about a given subject. The model, instead, appears to be about presenting or making information accessible in any context at any time to users depending on their context at the time.

eDiscovery?

eDiscovery, a feature available from SharePoint 2013, has the potential ability to bring together all information about a given subject from across the Office 365 ecosystem. However, the primary purpose of eDiscovery is to support legal processes, not records management.

New ways of thinking are necessary

Records managers need to think differently about how they will approach the management of all types of digital records and other content (conversations, discussions, photographs, videos, Sway presentations) created and stored by users across the complex ecosystems that is Office 365.

It will no longer be possible to assume that all records relating to a given function/activity pair, subject, or context can or will be stored in the same aggregation of records. Instead, records managers need to find other ways to manage digital content, including to manage disposition activities.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) may provide the clue to this. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made this very clear in a keynote presentation to the Microsoft Ignite conference on 26 September where he noted that AI would be able to: “… to reason over large amounts of data and convert that into intelligence”. He also noted Microsoft’s ambition is to create an intelligent assistant that “… can take text input, can take speech input, that knows your deeply. It knows your context, your family, your work. It knows about the world.”

Nadella also noted that: ” The most profound shift is in the fact that the data underneath the applications of Office 365 is exposed in a graph structure. And in a trusted, private-preserving way, we can reason over this data and create intelligence. That’s really the profound shift in Office 365.” (Source: https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/26/microsoft-ceo-satya-nadella-on-how-ai-will-transform-his-company/)

(Note, the last two paragraphs were added on 29 September to include comments made by Satya Nadella about Microsoft’s AI ambitions).

 

 

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