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The data administration implications of the rise of Microsoft Groups – Pondering Data

Microsoft Teams is an Office 365 application in which people belong to one or more teams and can exchange messages using one of three different routes:

  • Channels – Messages are visible to all other team members;
  • private channels – Messages are visible to a defined subset of their teammates;
  • Chats and Group Chats – Ad hoc discussions with colleagues or groups of colleagues (regardless of whether these colleagues are part of their team or not).

In a recently released IRMS podcast, Andrew Warland said that teams were enthusiastically received by colleagues in his organization and that the volume of communication sent through team channels and chats had increased rapidly. However, the number of emails exchanged did not appear to have decreased. In contrast, Graham Snow tweeted that he saw a drop in email traffic of up to 85% following the introduction of teams.

This post addresses three questions related to MS teams:

  • Will team correspondence be more accessible and / or easier to manage than email correspondence?
  • What portions of an organization's correspondence are likely to be redirected to teams by email?
  • On what basis should we make retention decisions for correspondence across team channels, private channels, and chats?

Is correspondence better managed in MS teams than in emails?

The question of whether correspondence in teams is likely to be more or less accessible and manageable than correspondence in emails largely depends on which of the communication channels within teams attracts the most correspondence:

  • Correspondence via “channels” within teams is likely to be both more accessible and easier to manage than email
  • Correspondence through private channels, group chats, and chats is probably not more manageable and accessible than email.

Conversation via channels

Channels are probably easier to manage than email because the access model is so simple. Any member of the team can access anything in any channel on the team. However, channels can cause headaches when storing them digitally because the conversations are stored separately from all documents / files that are shared in the channel:

  • The messages / conversations in the channel are saved in MS Exchange as a hidden set of files associated with the shared email account associated with the Office 365 group on which the team is based.
  • All documents published on the channel are stored in the document library located on the team's SharePoint team website. By default there is a document library in which the documents of all channels of the team are saved.

Talking through private channels

Private channels are a new feature of MS Teams that were introduced in November 2019. They work like channels, with the main difference that the access model is more detailed and therefore more complex. Each private channel within a team has its own list of members who can access it.

The storage arrangements for private channels are no more complex than for channels:

  • Correspondence from private channels is stored (as invisible files) in MS Exchange and attached to the email accounts of all participants in the private channel.
  • The documents are stored in a SharePoint document library. Each new private channel creates a new site collection in SharePoint to include only the one document library needed to store the documents uploaded to the private channel.

In the December 2019 episode of O365Eh! Podcast Dino Caputo described the fear in the SharePoint community that each new team's private channel creates a new SharePoint site collection and asked Microsoft Team Product Manager Roshin Lal Ramesan why it was designed this way. Roshin said it should protect the confidentiality expectations of private channel subscribers by ensuring that the documents they send are not visible to the owner of the team that hosts the private channel.

Microsoft has designed private channel storage arrangements to take into account that it is not normally required or recommended that a team owner be the oldest person on the team. Private channels offer (for example) managers in a team the opportunity to have a communication channel that the team owner cannot see.

Roshin explained that by default, the team owner becomes the site collection administrator of the SharePoint site, which is created automatically when a new team and Office 365 group are created. The team owner can view all of the content stored in this SharePoint site collection. When a private channel is created within the team, another new site collection is created that the team owner can only access if he is a member of the private channel himself.

Private channels were introduced after a mountain of requests from customer organizations. Organizations can play a high governance price for submitting their request. As private channels multiply within teams, new websites will also multiply in SharePoint. In anticipation of this, Microsoft has quadrupled the number of site collections an organization can implement from 500,000 to 2 million.

Access to old private channels will deteriorate over time. Microsoft's model is that the group owner is a different member of the private channel by default when the owner of a private channel leaves the company. As soon as the private channel is no longer used, access to the private channel will deteriorate and fewer and fewer people will be able to access it.

Implementation scenarios for MS teams

The question of whether channeling correspondence through teams makes this correspondence more or less useful and manageable than email depends on the balance between channels on the one hand and private channels and chats on the other.

We can identify two different scenarios:

  • In scenario 1, channels dominate, and correspondence in MS teams is more accessible and manageable than email correspondence.
  • In the scenario, two private channels and chats dominate, and over time, correspondence becomes more difficult to manage than correspondence in email accounts and is less accessible than if it had been handled by email.

Scenario 1: Channel-dominated teams

In scenario 1, each organizational unit receives a team, as do some cross-organizational projects. Each team is relatively small, which means that the conversation in a channel can be relatively open. Each team defines a relatively small number of channels to cover their main work areas. Individuals continue to use their email account as their primary source of correspondence, but they also use their team client for fast communication.

In this scenario, the team owner rarely adds colleagues from outside of his or her organizational unit to the team because it allows them to see all of the existing correspondence across all channels.

Scenario 2: Teams dominated by private channels and chats

In scenario 2, the organization increases the average size of teams, giving each individual a larger group of people with whom they can interact through channels and private channels. The team also has a number of channels for matters that affect the entire team. Because the team is so much larger, private channels are required to partially minimize unrelated traffic from individual team members and partly to allow team members to speak openly. The team client becomes more important for many colleagues than the email inbox, especially for those who are faced internally.

In this scenario, some people outside of the team and even the organization can be added as members, visitors, or guests so that a team can interact with them through a channel or a private channel. Individuals are finding that their team's customer is becoming more complex. This not only shows you the channels of your own team and the private channels to which you belong, but also the channels (and possibly some private channels) of other teams to which you have been added. Individuals learn to adapt to the new environment by turning notifications from different channels on and off depending on their perception of the relevance and usefulness of each channel / private channel.

In this second scenario, some people start watching their team client more closely than their email client and send more messages about teams than email.

The tension between governability and growth in MS teams

Reading the two scenarios above suggests the following:

  • If an MS Teams implementation (as in the first scenario) remains strictly regulated, team correspondence is more accessible and manageable than if it had been handled by email, but the platform requires only a minority of correspondence away from email.
  • If MS teams' governance is relaxed (as in the second scenario), teams have a real chance of achieving parity via email for internal correspondence, but at a price where correspondence is hardly more accessible than they are would have gone through email and is more difficult to manage than it would have been had email

Predicting how much traffic MS teams will get from emails

Whether or not a particular person experiences a drop in email traffic as a result of the introduction of MS teams depends on who they communicate with most:

  • People whose correspondence mainly consists of close colleagues who belong to the same team can experience a significant change in correspondence from email to MS teams.
  • People who typically correspond with colleagues who are common across the group will receive fewer emails.
  • People whose correspondence mainly exists with people outside their organization can see little or no difference.

Even within an organization, there are a variety of options, with some internal teams using it for 80% of their communication, while other external teams using it for 20% or less of their correspondence.


The two main obstacles that are likely to keep MS teams from becoming the main channel for written communication are:

  • Teams are not designed to work with people outside the organization. It is true that out-of-the-box teams allow a team owner to add someone outside of the organization to the team simply by adding their email address. However, once a person has been added to a team, they can view the entire past and present content of all channels in the team. This can result in some organizations completely disabling the ability for team owners to add external contacts to their team.
  • Team customers get more complex the more teams a person listens to and the more channels and private channels they belong to and the more chats they are. The AvePoint blog put it this way:

As every Microsoft Teams user knows, if you are part of many teams and named group chats, it is difficult to organize the "left rail" of the team interface. "Chats" quickly fall out of sight if they are not attached to your left rail and you are bombarded by chats every day (and who isn't?). Since you can't even search for named group chats in the mobile clients, this experience can be annoying if you travel a lot.

Balancing the two trends above is the fact that many people find working with a team client faster and more effective than working with an email account. If more people in the organization prefer to work with a team client than with an email client, a turning point can be reached if the team client replaces the email account as the main source of communication for a significant portion of the internal staff of the organization.

In some organizations, team traffic can reach parity with email. To achieve this position of almost equal parity with email, the teams must be governed loosely. Private channels, group chats and individual chats will multiply. These are the three types of team communication that (unlike channels) offer no governance advantage over email correspondence.

Maintaining conversations in channels, private channels and chats

I have long believed that managing and managing email is more difficult than email.

This is because the long-term trend is that the speed and volume of correspondence increase. As the speed of correspondence increases, the average value of individual messages decreases, although the total value of an organization's total correspondence does not decrease.

The lower the average of messages, the more difficult it is to distinguish significant messages from insignificant messages. A one-line message in a channel, a private channel, a group chat or a chat only makes sense in connection with the other messages in this channel, a private channel, a group chat or a chat.

Donald Henderson launched a debate on the Records Management UK list about how long messages sent through MS teams should be kept. In his post, Donald describes how he first wanted to impose a regime after which all posts in teams were deleted after a month, but that met with resistance, so his next proposal was six months. He went on to say that:

It has now been suggested to me that some parts of the organization actually publish "important things" in chat – the example given was interactions around a major capital building project, including with the contractor. I believe that this type of material warrants retention as a record of the capital project, i.e. H. 25 years and possibly permanent storage depending on the project.

Donald is right. If your colleagues use MS teams to interact with a contractor about a large-scale project, those interactions should actually be kept for the retention period that applies to large-scale project records. The fact that colleagues in the organization did not want team chats to be deleted after a month shows that teams serve as a recording system for the interactions that take place across teams. Donald described the disadvantage of keeping conversations conducted over teams as records:

Because it is really difficult to remove individual chat items (only the poster can delete its own posts), there is a risk that each item will be kept on a team site for the entire retention period. The thought of a subject access request, or probably worse, a FOI request for all the stupid GIFs that have been published is only a little worrying.

When organizations are faced with a high-speed correspondence system, their first response is usually to apply a unified retention policy to all systems across the system.

A unified retention policy for customizations works for 90% of your email accounts / teams / chats.

Setting a policy to keep email / team correspondence for x years (where x is a number between two and seven) works for 90 percent of the email accounts you use and Have team channels / private channels / chats. The problem is that the 10% it doesn't work for contains the top 10% of your correspondence.

The basis for the management of records is that different activities have different effects and meaning, which should be reflected in retention periods. Over the past two decades, we have repeatedly found that many decisions were only documented by email. When teams really take off and approach parity with email as the medium of correspondence, you will find that some decisions are only documented in teams.

The pragmatic approach is to manage exceptionally. This way, we can continue to set one size for all email and team retention periods. However, we only apply this to 90% of email accounts, 90% of teams, and 90% of people using team chat. An exception should be made for 10% of the email accounts, teams and team chat accounts used by those responsible for the most strategic / valuable / important / effective work of our organization. Choosing which people and which teams make up this 10% is a question of assessing file management and the type of assessment that people in our profession are qualified for.

To accompany such a policy, we should reserve the right to use human and / or automated means to identify and separate trivial and personal correspondence from this 10%.


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