Many (if not most) organisations receive and respond to correspondence in the form of letters or emails. They may also respond to social media messages.
Correspondence may be managed in different ways. For example, some organisations may have a dedicated business correspondence unit while in others individuals or business areas may respond.
This post describes how SharePoint Online with MS Teams and MS Flow could be used to manage letters and emails that require a formal ‘organisational’ response. It does not look at managing responses to social media messages.
The management of correspondence that requires a formal response generally involves the following elements:
- Somewhere to store the incoming correspondence (including scanned paper documents) and responses.
- A description of the correspondence (naming conventions and/or metadata).
- Some form of workflow, including emails, used to notify people of actions they must take.
- Various methods use to report on and track progress, and closure/completion rates.
SharePoint includes all these elements. The requirement for workflow can be met using emails, the built-in workflows, workflows built in SharePoint Designer, or MS Flow. MS Teams provides the opportunity to add additional value to the communication response process by allowing messaging, co-authoring of responses, approval processes, and more.
A model correspondence system
The model correspondence system described below is based on a correspondence management system that I developed for a large public sector organisation a few years ago, but using a different system.
The core elements of the model system are:
- An Office 365 (O365) Group. The O365 Group has an email address and an associated SharePoint site.
- The Office 365 Group’s SharePoint site.
- A Team in MS Teams, connected to the O365 Group.
- Microsoft Flow.
Office 365 Group
The O365 Group should have a name that reflects its purpose and makes it easy to recognise as it also becomes the email address name.
- For example ‘GRP_Correspondence’ – the prefix ‘GRP’ is used as it defines it as an O365 Group, as opposed to a Security Group (SG) or Distribution List (DL) created under the same ‘Groups’ section in the O365 Admin portal.
The Members of the Group should be the group of people primarily responsible for managing responses to the correspondence. Other people can be invited to the SharePoint site directly (without having access to the Group’s Team) as Members or Visitors.
The O365 Group’s SharePoint site has the same name in the URL – GRP_Correspondence.
The SPO site should have at least one document library with an obvious name, for example ‘Correspondence 2019’.
If there is concern about potentially long URL lengths, the library name could be reduced to, say ‘Corro2019’; the display name can still be ‘Correspondence 2019’.
Consideration might also be given to having a ‘drop off library’ in the Group site where anyone can save correspondence that may require a response.
The metadata required in the document library will vary between organisations. The core default metadata (for every new document library) already includes all the following:
- Created (date)
- Created by
- Modified (date)
- Modified by
- Document ID (when enabled as a Site Collection feature, which is recommended)
- Shared with
- Shared with details
- Check In Comment
- Checked Out To
- File Size
- Folder Child Count
- Item Child Count (shows how many documents in a folder)
- Label setting
- Retention label
- Retention label Applied
Additional metadata may include any of the following:
- Sender (free text or potentially drop down choice)
- Response Due date (Date)
- Urgency (Choice – Routine, Urgent)
- Description (free text)
- Reply Status (Choice – Not required, Draft, Approved, Sent, Cancelled)
- Response Type (Not required, By email, By letter)
- Approved by (internal Active Directory name)
- Date Completed (Date) < This date should correspond to the date on any reply.
Once the library has been created, content can be added.
- Paper correspondence can be scanned and saved to the library. Many MFD (printers) now have the ability to save directly to SharePoint, perhaps to a drop-off library for categorisation and review before being moved to the primary library. The original paper can then be boxed and destroyed after a given period (3 – 6 months).
- Emails can (and should) be copied from the Group’s inbox to the library (see screenshot below). To do this, sync the library to File Explorer and drag and drop.
A new folder can be created for each new correspondence, as indicated in the screenshot below:
Both the correspondence and the folders where it is stored should be named according to naming conventions. Naming conventions can also be used instead of folders, to indicate the connection between the original and the reply. My preference is to use folders to group the original and the reply, and also because they are ubiquitous in the digital workplace.
Suggested naming conventions:
- Folders: Surname-Subject-Date
- Emails: EMAIL-Surname-Subject-Date
- Documents: LETTER-Surname-Subject-Date
- Replies: REPLY-Surname-Subject-Date-DRAFT or FINAL (the final version may be ‘signed’ and then saved as a PDF)
Always exclude spaces in names, as these will be replaced by ‘%20’ in the URL path.
If one or more standard templates are required for replies:
- Create the new Site Content Type in the Site Content Types area.
- Enable the management of content types in the ‘Advanced’ section of the document library settings.
- Add the new Site CT to the library
- Add or edit the Word template to be used by clicking on the Content Type in the ‘Content Types’ section, then clicking on ‘Advanced settings’ and ‘upload’. The template can continue to be modified as required directly from this area and ensures consistency in replies.
The new Content Type will appear in the ‘New’ menu in the document library but not in the MS Teams ‘New’ dialogue (see below). This means that standard replies using a template can only (currently) be created via the SharePoint library. Drafts, however, could be created with a standard document template first (same with emails, see below).
The Team in MS Teams can be connected to the O365 Group (it’s a one to one relationship, you cannot connected multiple O365 Groups with a single MS Team).
The Team can have multiple channels, and the SPO document library can be presented in a channel. For example, the channel named ‘Correspondence 2019’ includes the ‘Correspondence 2019’ document library as a tab, as shown below.
The use of Teams means allows drafts to be co-authored and chats to take place about the correspondence and other matters.
If the SharePoint site includes an ‘incoming correspondence’ drop off library, the Team could have a channel with that library as a tab. The channel could then be used to review and decide on what to do with the correspondence.
Routing incoming correspondence for a reply
Once the correspondence is saved in a SharePoint document library, a decision must be taken by someone whether a reply is required.
- If no reply is required, this can be reflected in the metadata (‘No reply required’).
- If a reply is required, the correspondence must be ‘sent’ or otherwise made available (see below) to someone to draft a reply. This can be a simple or complex process.
- In some cases, a standard reply may be possible. The SharePoint site should contain at least one library that contains examples of standard replies to certain types of, or common, questions.
The easiest way to ‘send’ someone the correspondence for action is to use the ‘Share’ option on the folder where the incoming correspondence is stored. As the same ‘Share’ option appears in File Explorer when the library is synced, the sharing process can also be managed from File Explorer.
This means that the recipient only has to click on the folder link in the email they receive to see the content of the folder. As they have access to the folder, they can then use the ‘New’ option to create a draft reply, including to an email.
Once the draft has been finalised, it can also be sent via the ‘Share’ option. Alternatively, an alert on the library will notify anyone who needs to be notified that a change has been made to the library.
Routing using MS Flow
A more complex routing process may be required if the draft requires several steps, for example:
- Send to someone to create the draft reply.
- Draft reply gets sent to someone else for approval.
- If not approved, goes back to the person who created it. (This can loop several times)
- If approved, a message is sent to the person who needs to finalise it
- Reply is finalised, metadata is updated, and reply sent.
All SharePoint Online libraries include an in-built Flow workflow ‘Request Sign Off’. When a document is selected and the ‘Request Sign Off’ option is selected the first time, the person must select the option to ‘Create Flow’. The ‘Run Flow’ dialogue then appears, requiring someone to be identified as the Approver and a Message to be included. The approver can be anyone in the organisation, for example the person’s manager.
The Approver receives an email, allowing them to approve or reject, and add a comment. If rejected, the ‘Sign Off Status’ column in the SharePoint library is updated to ‘Rejected’, and the sender receives a message to advice them that approval was rejected.
If approved, the sender receives an email to notify them, and the ‘Sign off status’ column changes to ‘Approved’.
Once the reply has been approved, it can be finalised and sent to the person who wrote the correspondence. All versions of the draft reply are kept in the same folder, along with the final.
Once approved, any email reply could be sent directly to the correspondent from the O365 Group’s mailbox.
Metadata from the document library can be exported to Excel, or to business intelligence systems (or PowerBI) for analysis and reporting purposes.
Correspondence can be managed in SharePoint, with MS Teams used to provide additional co-authoring and ‘chat’ options for the team, and MS Flow used for more complex approval requirements.