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Content Sprawl Happens: How Will You Manage It?

September 25, 2020 Collaboration and Productivity
Christian Buckley
By Christian Buckley

Remember when collaboration was simple, and sharing a file involved attaching a Word document or Excel spreadsheet to an email and hitting send?

Then came the centrally-managed document collaboration capabilities of SharePoint and similar platforms. Again, the concept was simple: provide a single source of truth for the organization, and send links rather than attachments. But with a less-than-stellar check-in and check-out experience, we eventually saw more user-driven cloud-based storage options introduced, including OneDrive (and each of its iterations) as well as a number of competitors. These solutions provided a centralized but somewhat disjointed method to store and share our content.

Yet concerns over security and compliance were so strict in some organizations that employees only used the platform when required, gravitating toward the easier-to-use and often free cloud-based solutions to share their content — or they resorted back to email attachments.

There are two simple truths about collaboration:

  1. People want to get their work done.
  2. Companies want to protect their intellectual property.

People gravitate toward technology that does not interrupt the flow of business, but the policies and procedures companies employ do just that, they add to the complexity of collaboration with process, rules and bureaucracy. If doing something simple like sharing a file or coediting a document requires multiple steps for authentication or any other restrictive controls, employees will go back to what is simple, easy and familiar.

When collaboration is easy — when employees can quickly access content, easily share with people inside and outside of the organization, and adhere to governance standards without altering their work habits — people collaborate more. Decrease the friction, and increase productivity.

Content Sprawl Happens

The idea of content sprawl is rarely thought of as a positive when it comes to collaboration. We typically define it as "unregulated and unmanaged growth" within our collaboration platforms. However, in many ways, sprawl is a natural byproduct of collaboration. People generate sites and lists and documents as part of the collaborative creative process. Some of these may expand and iterate, and ultimately remain within your system of record (requirements documents, research data, project plans, meeting notes, etc.), while other artifacts may have a short lifespan. Logically, the more we collaborate, the more sprawl we create.

In some ways, you could say that sprawl is a natural byproduct of collaboration — and growing sprawl is a sign of healthy collaboration activity.

Let’s take a peak under the hood of content sprawl in Microsoft 365:

Within Microsoft 365, the provisioning of a new team site or project group means the creation of a new Office 365 Group, which is an Azure Active Directory (AAD) security group. Office 365 Groups are generated when a new SharePoint team site, Microsoft Teams team or Yammer community are created. Along with these primary containers, a number of digital assets are provisioned, including:

  • A new Microsoft Teams team.
  • A new SharePoint Online team site.
  • A new Outlook group and calendar.
  • A new Power BI workspace.
  • A new Planner plan.

Without taking any governance steps around the provisioning process, organizations find themselves swelling with unused Microsoft containers — silos of unmanaged content within their environment. This sprawl can impact the user experience, slow down search performance and effectiveness, exasperate company content lifecycle planning, and bog down security and compliance efforts as intellectual property gets spread across multiple locations, each with a maze  of chats, files and channels.

According to Kyle Wallstedt, a senior solutions architect with Egnyte, a cloud content governance platform and Microsoft partner:

“There ends up being silos of content behind everything you do in Microsoft 365, whether it’s new SharePoint sites being created each time there’s a new project team, or duplicate content being shared across multiple channels in Microsoft Teams. It’s that sprawl of content that keep CIOs up at night. People do not understand the risk that their data carries, the PII it includes, the content lifecycles that should be applied.” 

Sprawl tends to happen when anyone and everyone can create a site or team, usually without oversight, planning or formal training, resulting in dozens (sometimes hundreds) of rarely used or completely abandoned sites and teams.

With the explosive growth of Microsoft 365, and specifically with the growing use of SharePoint, OneDrive and Microsoft Teams, many organizations without a history in knowledge and information management technology may now be experiencing content sprawl for the first time.

Related Article: Office 365 Governance Isn't About Saying 'No'

Identifying and Managing Content Sprawl

Content sprawl is of course not unique to Microsoft products and services, but it is important to understand what it looks like within each workload. That way you can develop strategies for managing the sprawl based on that product's use within your own organization.

Sprawl is dangerous in part because organizations do not fully understand the business impacts, which include:

  • Poor productivity. By definition, sprawl means your data (your intellectual property) is spread across various sites and data silos. When data is not optimized, classified and organized, it cannot be used effectively. When data is not used effectively, it impacts (reduces) discovery, collaboration and innovation.
  • Security risk. You cannot manage what you cannot properly track and measure. Sprawl makes it difficult, if not impossible, for administrators to enforce company policies and procedures, opening up the organization to security and compliance risks. Mistakes in IP governance (much less intentional mishandling) are often not found until after the fact, which is not a sustainable management model.
  • Decreased business value. When data cannot be found in a timely manner, or found at all, it loses its value. One of the major problems with sprawl is that data goes in easily enough, but cannot be surfaced when needed, affecting the overall value of your collaboration platform as well. What good is a system if you cannot find the right data at the right time?

When deploying SharePoint, Microsoft Teams and OneDrive, many organizations elect to leave the platforms wide open, allowing anyone to create Team Sites (SharePoint), or Teams and Channels (Microsoft Teams). Without specific guidance and training, formal information architecture (data classification, tagging, labeling, navigation) tends to go ignored.

Unfortunately, few organizations begin their planning process with sound governance policies. Instead, they take action once damage has been done. Governance is cast aside in the name of “saving time” and reducing bureaucracy.

Most organizations have been using a version of these tools for years, with a SharePoint intranet in place, employees using OneDrive (both the consumer and business versions), and one or two business units experimenting with Microsoft Teams. As you make plans to roll these tools out to the entire organization, or begin your business transformation planning to better utilize and support these tools going forward, there are definitely some best practices you can follow:

  • Prevention is all about properly structuring environments at the start. This means defining and managing the provisioning process, including who can create a new site, what components they include (web parts, apps, tabs, etc.), and the templates used. It also means having a thoughtful information architecture, naming conventions and communication strategy so that employees understand how to utilize these tools within the guidelines established by IT.
  • Proactive Administration is about communication and community management, and is the key to creating a healthy collaboration environment. Your focus should be on adoption of the technology (people are using the technology) and employee engagement (people are working together), tracking and measuring activities and creating a dialog between leadership, management, IT and employees about what is working — and what is not working within the environment. With these analytics and an ongoing, healthy dialog between constituencies, proactive administration includes sharing best practices, constantly learning and iterating your plans and governance strategies.
  • Continuous Management is concerned with the mechanics of maintaining your security, compliance and governance standards, including retention policies (archiving, deletion), feature updates (timing, training), site/team expiration policies, app/webpart approvals, and other business-critical oversight capabilities.

Related Article: Governance Propels the Digital Workplace Forward

You Can't Avoid Content Sprawl

Content sprawl is unavoidable. The question is, how will you manage it?

No matter where you are in the deployment cycle of Microsoft 365, it’s never too early or too late to start building out your governance strategy. Whether you’re looking to deploy SharePoint, Microsoft Teams or OneDrive — or the entire Microsoft 365 stack — your best bet for controlling content sprawl and getting more out of the platform is consistent use of security, compliance and governance best practices.

About the Author

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director (RD) and Office Apps and Services MVP, internationally-recognized collaboration expert, and the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Lehi, Utah.

Prior to CollabTalk, Christian served as a chief marketing officer and chief evangelist for some of the largest ISVs in the SharePoint ecosystem, and was part of the Microsoft team that launched SharePoint Online (now part of Office 365).

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