The third part of my recent series of posts, titled Setting up SharePoint Online to manage records, included an example architecture model with several Office 365 Group-based sites, shown in green in the graphic below.
This post describes how Office 365 Groups, with their associated mailbox and SharePoint site, can be useful when there is a business requirement to manage aggregations of email and document-based records for a given function or subject, and why this option should be considered as part of your architecture model for managing records in Office 365 and SharePoint.
What are Office 365 Groups?
Office 365 Groups are a relatively new concept and still remain poorly understood, especially in organisations implementing Office 365.
Because they are not well understood, organisations may implement all the elements of Office 365 without necessarily being aware that:
- Every new Group in Outlook, Team in MS Teams, Planner, and Yammer group creates an Office 365 Group with an associated SharePoint site.
- End-users can create SharePoint sites from their individual SharePoint portal (the default ‘Team site’ option creates an Office 365 Group)
- SharePoint sites will proliferate without any controls over naming or content.
In very simple terms, Office 365 Groups:
- Are Azure Active Directory (AD) objects, similar to Security Groups (also known as AD Groups).
- Like Security Groups, have members and give those members access to certain (but usually different) IT resources.
- Have an associated Exchange mailbox and SharePoint site (that links these two in the same context), and can be linked with a Team in MS Teams. The members of the Group have access to both the mailbox and the SharePoint site. Members of Security Groups may also be added to the SharePoint site but won’t be able to see the mailbox or the Teams chat.
- Are similar to Distribution Lists or a shared mailbox in the sense that all the members of the Group can receive emails from the one mailbox.
- Include other functionality, including Planner, and can be linked with Yammer groups/communities.
For more information on Office 365 Groups, see this blog post ‘Office 365 Groups Explained‘ on the Microsoft Tech Community site, which points to a more detailed post on the same subject from ShareGate.
The records management problem that Office 365 Groups can help to resolve
One of the key recordkeeping problems in many organisations (aside from managing digital records generally) is the disconnect between email and other forms of records on the same subject or context.
- Emails are created, sent to and from, and stored in mostly inaccessible ‘personal’ accounts (with the odd shared mailbox). Emails may have attachments and the attachment may be the only version of the record. Shared mailboxes partially help this issue but there remains a disconnect between emails and other records.
- Other digital records (including saved email attachments) may be stored across network file shares (including ‘personal drives’ and the local C drive) and other locations, including USB drives and unofficial cloud-based systems. Unofficial and unapproved storage locations heighten information security risks both from storing official records in unofficial locations, but also the potential for malicious links.
In the early computer days the only way to keep these records together was to print them and put them on a file, a practice that (sadly) continues to exist. Over the last 20 years, electronic document and records management (EDRM) systems have provided a similar functionality by requiring end-users to copy original documents to a digital version of the file (leaving the originals in place in most cases).
The problem that most organisations face is that records about the same subject or business context, in multiple forms (email, documents) and formats (including chat, messaging and social media) are stored across multiple systems (Outlook, network file shares, personal drives, personal apps on mobile devices).
As a case in point, in 2018 I asked a business unit of so-called ‘mobile workers’ how they kept in touch and ‘collaborated’. Their responses included Facebook Messager, Whatsapp, DropBox (and others) and private emails.
How can Office 365 Groups help recordkeeping?
As noted above, Office 365 Groups have a mailbox, SharePoint site and a Team in MS Teams.
If set up correctly, a single Office 365 Group can provide a single point of context for both email and other digital records including chat, without end-users having to copy or move content anywhere else.
The following are examples (from real life experience) of how Office 365 Groups can be used to keep related records in context.
Organisation often have a central point for the management of all incoming correspondence. In the past, this was likely to be a shared mailbox and correspondence might be uploaded (including after scanning of paper mail) to an EDRMS or other system for routing and responses.
Instead of using a shared mailbox, the Office 365 Group mailbox can be used to receive all emails (where they can remain), and its connected SharePoint site can be used for the storage of digital content including template responses (that could also be stored in Content Types created on the site). A Team in MS Teams may also be created to provide a forum for discussion about the correspondence or other matters – for example, a channel to discuss draft responses.
All the members of the Office 365 Group can access the mailbox, chat and collaborate on content within Team channels, and use the SharePoint site. They can use the ‘share’ option (rather than attaching document to emails) to share drafts with others, or use the ‘out of the box’ ‘Request Sign Off’ flow available in every document library to seek approval.
Additionally, if the Group’s SharePoint site front page has the default ‘Site Activity’ web app displayed, this will show new emails coming in to the Group’s mailbox as shown in the image below. These emails are only accessible to the members of the Group.
Storing records by function/activity/subject
Office 365 Groups could be used to manage the records of a particular business function and activity, particularly those where there is a lot of email.
For example, the functions of ‘Fleet Management’ (or ‘Asset Management’), ‘Property Management’, or even ‘Financial Management’ are all likely to have both email and document type records.
- Emails relating to the function can be sent to and managed from the Group’s mailbox by the members of the Group, rather than using a shared mailbox (which is disconnected from the other records).
- Documents (including emails from the mailbox, if required) relating to the function can be stored in SharePoint document libraries that map to the activities that are being performed. For example, in a ‘Meetings’ library.
- There may be a single retention policy for the entire site or one or more label-based retention policies used on individual libraries, or a combination of both (the longest retention policy will take precedence).
In this way, emails and documents about the same subject can be managed from a single Office 365 Group.
Senior executive management
Office 365 Groups can be used to support and secure communication between senior executives. It provides them with a single restricted access mailbox and SharePoint site, access to both of which are controlled by membership of the Office 365 Group. It also provides them with a Team in MS Teams.
Additional security measures can be applied to more sensitive information including:
- More restricted security on some parts of the SharePoint site
- Data Loss Prevention policies for very sensitive information
- Retention policies to prevent the deletion of content (or capture ‘deleted’ content in a hidden Preservation Hold library).
- Stronger monitoring of all activity by end-user.
IT Operations/Service Desk
The IT Service Desk is a common point of contact in most organisations and most service desks will have a shared mailbox to review and triage incoming emails. They will also have a requirement to keep records relating to service support issues.
An Office 365 Group, perhaps named ‘ITServiceDesk’, can be established.
- The Group mailbox can be the central point of email contact for the Service Desk (ITServiceDesk@organisation.name).
- The associated SharePoint site can be used for the storage of service support documents and other content.
- The Group’s Team in MS Teams can have multiple channels to support each application or aspect of IT as required. The Service Desk can use the one-to-one chat and sharing screen capability to resolve service issues.
Office 365 Groups can change the way we work
As noted above, ‘personal’ emails and the use of mostly uncontrolled network file shares (and other storage locations) have been a common way of working for three decades.
Changing these work habits can be hard. However, change can be brought about with minimal impact, provided end-users are assured that the content they need to access will still be accessible and protected, and there is a tangible benefit in doing so in adopting the new ways of working.
These changes should start small, with a focus on mainly small business units that would benefit from being ‘converted’ to an Office 365 Group. The changes that come with an Office 365 Group include:
- Replacing shared mailboxes and some (mostly smaller) distribution lists with Office 365 Group mailboxes – still accessed from Outlook.
- Replacing network file shares with a File Explorer-based view of the Group’s SharePoint site libraries (via the sync option). This will allow end-users to continue to work in a familiar way. Note that added metadata is not visible from File Explorer and certain metadata options, such as making a column mandatory, will cause the File Explorer view to become read only.
- Introducing end-users to MS Teams initially for one-to-one chat, and pointing out how their Group also has a Team where they can chat and access the SharePoint site and other resources.
- Demonstrating how the browser-based version of a SharePoint site can show (via the ‘Activity’ web part) emails coming from the Group’s mailbox. And that document libraries have a range of additional document and records management functionality.
- Managing retention for all aspects of the Group, ensuring that content is kept (and can be recovered) for as long as required. This action can be hidden from end-users.
The end result should be better management of all records relating to specific subjects or needing to be kept in context.
What about other records stored in email and SharePoint sites?
This post has focused on the benefits of using Office 365 Groups to manage certain types of records within a given context. This model may not be suitable for all types of records. For example:
- End-users will probably, for years to come, create, send and manage emails in ‘personal’ email accounts. Email won’t go away as it provides a useful medium for certain types of communication.
- End-users will also continue to use their personal space in OneDrive to create and store records that should be stored in SharePoint. It is not easy to monitor this content and so end-user training is essential to ensure that final versions of records are stored in SharePoint.
- Security Groups are still valid, especially for groups of 30 or more and can be used in parallel with Office 365 Groups. For example, a small business area may have an Office 365-based SharePoint site and decide to give read only access to the members of the members of a Security Group (with different members), by adding that Security Group to the Site Visitors group. Any member of the Security Group who also happens to be a member of the Office 365 Group will continue to have Member (add/edit) access.
- High level business department/divisions may prefer to retain standard SharePoint sites with limited Member access and with Visitor (read only) access controlled via Security Groups (especially those with hundreds of members). An Office 365 Group with more than 30/50 members is still possible, but the benefits compared with using Security Groups is debatable, especially if a Team is linked with the Office 365 Group. Experience using Yammer since 2012 suggests that (a) Teams with more than 30 people can become very quiet and (b) a mailbox with more than 30 members is not useful.
Office 365 Groups:
- Should be part of the information architecture model for managing records in Office 365. They are well-suited for lower-level and/or small business units with fewer than 30 members as experience suggests that the more people in the group the less likely everyone will actively participate and contribute.
- Can and should, in many instances, replace existing functionality including shared mailboxes and network file shares.
- Will allow end-user to continue to work in familiar ways, via Outlook and File Explorer, while offering new options to communicate and collaborate.
- Should reduce the volume of ‘personal’ emails and attachments to emails.
- May enable the creation, and facilitate the storage and management of records relating to the same business context, including within a function/activity pair.
- May never replace the requirement for email or ‘standard’ high level business division or departmental SharePoint sites.