MS Teams: the case for information architecture and governance

A NetIKX seminar, 26 May 2022

Jernej Furman – Microsoft Teams On Screen Under Magnifying Glass

Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) became familiar to many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for video conferencing tools skyrocketed. However, MS Teams is much more than an alternative to Zoom or Skype – it’s a fully-fledged set of productivity tools. In this NetIKX seminar, Alex Church of Metataxis gave a thorough overview of the functionality of MS Teams and how it can be used to support good practice in information management and governance.

MS Teams is part of the Microsoft 365 suite of products. It provides a set of cloud business applications – not only communication tools (chat, audio/video conferencing and telephony), but also collaboration tools (content sharing, storage and task management). For organisations already using Microsoft 365, it would appear to be an ideal information management solution. However, as Alex pointed out, the fact that it is easy to set up and use is both a blessing and a curse – just because you can simply deploy it ‘out of the box’ does not mean that you should!

Before you start: the important decisions

Alex’s advice for anyone planning to deploy MS Teams is to think about what they intend to use it for. This includes whether they are already using SharePoint and if so, what for (and what the relationship between the two will be); and where their official repository for files is (it may or may not be SharePoint). 

It is possible to allow anyone to create a Team, but this is not advisable – Alex suggested putting in place an approval and provisioning process, either manually or via a third-party app. It is also good practice to implement a naming convention, as there is nothing to stop two Teams having the same name.  

The MS Teams architecture: chats, channels and more

MS Teams imposes its own information architecture (including a ‘General’ channel, which cannot be removed). By default, every Team has a SharePoint library and document store behind it, with team messages being stored in a group mailbox. Chat messages, however, may be stored in personal mailboxes or on OneDrive – so the desire to delete these messages needs to be balanced against the need to retain them for evidence or reference.

It is also possible to create private channels, which are accessible only to a subset of Team members. Creating a private channel automatically creates a separate SharePoint site, document library and folder. Messages in the Private Channel are stored in the users’ personal mailboxes. Expiration, retention and retention label policies also need to be applied to private channels.

Privacy, sharing and permissions

One crucial decision is whether to make a Team public or private. Public Teams are ideal for shared collaboration purposes, but they are visible to everyone in the organisation, and anyone can join without needing approval from the owner. 

Anyone can search the content of a public Team within SharePoint, and more worryingly, anyone can edit or delete files without joining the Team. Alex suggested changing the permissions of a public Team Sharepoint site to make non-members ‘site visitors’ with  read-only permission. 

You may want to allow external ‘guest’ access to users outside the organisation: however, this setting is universal by default, which is of particular concern if you allow self-creation of Teams, as it means any user can add external guests. It is also wise to review which users are allowed to add third-party apps, since this can open additional information silos.

Retention policies and labels

Managing retention within MS Teams is complex. Simply applying a retention policy or retention label does not necessarily prevent items being deleted – it means that a copy will be retained and held until the retention period has elapsed. In addition, there’s a system of retention precedence: retention labels take precedence over retention policy, and retention policy over expiration policy.

Retention labels cannot be applied to chat and channel messages: for chat messages, the policy is applied to the user, and for channel messages it is applied to the Team. As previously mentioned, retention policies for this material needs to be carefully considered: early deletion of messages could be viewed as a lack of transparency, particularly in the public sector.

Final thoughts and discussion

Alex summed up by emphasising that MS Teams is a great tool: you will get value from it, but will also create problems if you deploy it without first having a clear strategy, governance and information architecture in place. The presentation was followed, as is traditional at NetIKX seminars, by group discussions in which we shared our experience of working with MS Teams. These ranged from those of us who had only used it as a videoconferencing tool to others who, in the words of one participant, “lived in Teams”. 

As Alex pointed out, MS Teams is now the direction of travel for Microsoft, and as many of us work for, or with, organisations which use Microsoft 365, we will increasingly be exposed to it. Many of us – myself included – had not previously appreciated the complexity of MS Teams or how it fits into the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. For information managers embarking on an MS Teams deployment, Alex’s succinct advice was “Consider, plan and proceed with caution”.

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