labels hanging from a wall
PHOTO: Louie Martinez

Microsoft released its Advanced Data Governance platform in April 2017, in response to the ongoing content governance struggles of businesses. Businesses best intentions were dragged down by two factors: a lack of a transparent overall content governance strategy and poor implementation of tools to support these processes.

In part one of this two-part series, we looked at two of the foundational elements of content governance — content types and metadata inheritance — and how they relate to Microsoft's ongoing efforts in the space, in particular in Office 365. This article will cover the remaining two elements of a content governance foundation —  retention labels and the information lifecycle — as well as share some best practices for content governance within the Microsoft ecosystem. 

Related Article: The Elements of Office 365 Content Governance: Content Types

Office 365 Retention Labels

Retention Labels in Office 365 can help organizations take the right actions on the right content. With retention labels, you can classify data across your organization for governance, and enforce retention rules based on that classification.

Retention labels specify rules to manage the retention and deletion of content with various triggers. The retention label service can include roles for each repository, container or folder (what content goes where and when) when a label is applied. Retention labels are mapped to Office 365 services that specify how to manage the retention and deletion of content — including documents, emails, records and items — across Office 365. 

Depending on the specific Office 365 service involved, labels are applied at the document or container-level, such as document libraries in SharePoint Online. It's not yet possible to apply labels at the container-level in some Office 365 services, such as a Modern Group. Those scenarios call for retention policies (preservation) to apply to all documents in the container. These labels are typically either date-driven or event-driven, meaning the destruction date is based on an identifiable date when the document is filed or an event that occurs in the future.

With labels, you can:

  • Make it possible for people in your organization to apply a label manually to content in Outlook on the web, Outlook 2010 and later, OneDrive, SharePoint, Teams and Office 365 groups. Users often know best what type of content they’re working with, so they can assign a retention label and have the appropriate policy applied.
  • Apply labels to content automatically if it matches specific conditions, such as when the content contains:
    • Specific types of sensitive information. This is available for content in SharePoint and OneDrive.
    • Specific keywords that match a query you create and enable labels to be assigned based on metadata. This is available for content in Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive and Office 365 Groups.

How Retention Labels Relate to Content Types

Figure 4 - Example Content Type Hierarchy
Figure 4 - Example Content Type Hierarchy

The figure above indicates how retention labels are related to content types. Typically, each retention label has multiple content types associated with it. Through this mechanism, when a content type is assigned to a document, its retention rules are also defined. Office 365 can provide for multiple label categories (retention, encryption, multi-geo, identity, etc.) to be assigned to a content type, but each piece of content will only have a single label in each label category.    

Retention labels perform a function in Office 365 that is analogous to Information Policies in SharePoint on-premises, except they apply to all of the Office 365 workloads, not just SharePoint Online. Additionally, retention labels are tags associated with Office 365 content, so they are simpler and much easier to manage than Information Policies were in SharePoint on-premises.

At Ignite, Maithili Dandige, principle group program manager, Microsoft 365 Security and Compliance, introduced how retention labels can now be applied to content outside of Office 365. The demonstration highlighted the ability to manage content in Facebook, with the slides and discussion indicating the capability will eventually apply to such platforms as Bloomberg, Dropbox, Instagram and Adobe.

Related Article: What Organizations Want in SharePoint 2019

Information Lifecycle Model

Information, like any other asset owned by an organization, has a lifecycle and value that tends to change over time. The Information Lifecycle Model (ILM) defines a set of states for all information, from creation through disposal, as its value changes. All information being managed by an organization will fall into one of these states.

ILMs are a cornerstone of information governance strategies because they enable consistent management of information according to a standard taxonomy and retention schedule, regardless of whether humans or automated processes make the decisions. An ILM defines rules and repositories that are decoupled from business processes and applications. An ILM is therefore a technology-agnostic standard which is defined and maintained independently of the other, technology-based aspects of information governance.

The figure below represents the various states of a typical information lifecycle. In the early stages of the lifecycle, information tends to have low value to the organization and may only be needed temporarily. If information is shared with others as part of a business process, the information is considered work in-progress and its value increases, but it still may not be needed as part of the final product. Information that is part of the final product has the highest value to the organization and should be kept for as long as it retains its value.

Figure 5 – Example Information Lifecycle State
Figure 5 – Example Information Lifecycle State

An Information Lifecycle Model contains business rules that are associated with each lifecycle state. The consistent implementation of an information lifecycle in all of an organization's repositories will make it possible to consistently and transparently (to the user community) enforce a retention schedule. We believe most organizations should include information lifecycle features in the provisioning and rollout of Office 365 sites.

An Information Lifecycle Model will enable the following:

  • Consistent management and storage of information.
  • Standard core metadata capture.
  • Consistency, minimizing information abandonment.
  • Information accuracy and relevancy.
  • Standard retention across all information states and approved locations.

Related Article: Why Your Microsoft Teams Governance Plan Needs a Lifecycle Model

Content Governance Best Practices

By using the four components of content governance — content types, metadata inheritance, retention labels and an information lifecycle model — in tandem, businesses will create strong content governance practices that keep the questions of "Where should I put my information and how do I find it easily" at bay. Below are some parting best practices.

Content Types are Critical

As stated before, content labels and retention labels are the foundation of content governance in Office 365. When properly defined, content types allow organizations to define the retention and records management rules for each type of document and enable the consistent enforcement of retention policies for documents in multiple repositories. The advantage of content types is that retention and metadata inheritance rules can be defined by content type and maintained by user departments.

Standard definitions of content types are maintained in the SharePoint Content Type Hub Service based on managed metadata from the SharePoint Term Store. This is powerful. The content type model works in organizations with tens of thousands of sites, and it is a foundational capability that will enable organizations to achieve enterprise records management.

Retention labels help you create a global retention file plan and retention schedule that extends across all of Office 365.

Maintaining an Enterprise Information Lifecycle State Model Is a Critical Success Factor

A lifecycle defines the different states of a document and the rules to enforce in the transition between states. A standard lifecycle enables consistent treatment of document retention and disposition decisions from the creation through destruction of a document.

Part of the lifecycle implementation is included in best practices definition of the lifecycle states, and part of the implementation is enforced within the definition of rules within each document type. A lifecycle is fundamentally separate from business process management, or workflow, and can be enforced across multiple repositories.

When an organization effectively implements an information lifecycle, it greatly reduces the amount of time users spend filing documents to ensure subsequent findability and records disposition.   

Related Article: Digital Governance vs. Office 365 Governance: Which Do You Need?

Consistency and Simplicity of User Experience Are Critical

Effective content governance needs to be transparently enforced and minimally visible (if at all) to end-users. Deploying content management solutions that incorporate consistent navigation, security, search and taxonomy can increase adoption because user expectations are set in advance and less training and change management is required. A user experience that automatically ensures content is placed in the correct retention label-enabled repository (as opposed to one that requires the user to figure out where to upload content) will help people use the system correctly.

Most users want to remain in their preferred user experience (Microsoft Office and Outlook, for example) and any governance should be tightly integrated with these products to ensure the user’s comfort when interacting with their information. 

Prove It First – Retention Labels and Content Types Will Be a Success!

Any program that involves fundamental changes to the classification and retention of documents for an organization affects how most users will interact with their documents. It is critical to first demonstrate these capabilities in carefully controlled proofs-of-concept and pilot implementations. This will enable a better understanding of where additional Microsoft partner solutions are needed for user workflows and will also demonstrate the change management that will be required to avoid disruptions for users.