Achieving Effective Microsoft 365 Governance, Part 1

May 21, 2024
13 min read

Part 1 of a 3-article series providing expert governance strategies for consultants and IT leaders.

Information governance is crucial for organizations to manage their information assets effectively throughout their lifespan. Information governance is the set of policies, procedures, and practices that organizations use to manage their information assets throughout their lifecycle. Implementing information governance can be a complex and challenging process, with many organizational challenges.

Organizations frequently encounter significant challenges when implementing information governance, such as a lack of stakeholder support. Successful information governance relies on endorsement from all levels of an organization. Without buy-in from key stakeholders, such as senior management and frontline staff, the implementation process can stall or veer off course.

The modern organization also finds itself managing increasingly complex data environments. Most organizations grapple with intricate data landscapes, involving various systems, applications, and formats. This complexity hinders tasks like data identification, classification, retention policy formulation, and alignment with legal and regulatory mandates.

One of the most common and difficult challenges – for both individuals and organizations – is simply resistance to change. Anything that disturbs the status quo, whether introducing a new collaboration tool or retooling a business process, will often be met with resistance. Information governance often entails process, procedure, and workflow changes. Such changes will likely be met with resistance from employees accustomed to existing practices or unaware of the changes' significance. Overcoming this resistance demands effective communication, training, and stakeholder engagement.

Addressing these challenges demands strategic planning, stakeholder involvement, and clear communication to ensure a successful information governance implementation.

Automating much of the information governance process can help organizations improve compliance with regulations and policies related to data management and protection by making it easier to enforce policies consistently, identify non-compliance, standardize audit processes, protect data from breaches, and simplify reporting.

Potential Gaps in Microsoft 365

To address the specialized needs of organizations in managing and securing data, Microsoft offers Microsoft Purview, a comprehensive tool designed for effective information governance and compliance management. Purview extends the capabilities of Microsoft 365 by providing a unified data governance solution that enables organizations to understand, manage, and protect their data across various platforms and environments. With features like advanced data classification, sensitive information discovery, and robust compliance and risk management tools, Purview helps organizations tailor their governance strategies to meet unique operational demands and regulatory requirements.

Screenshot for the compliance manager start page for Microsoft Purview.
Figure 1: Understand the capabilities within Microsoft Purview | Used with permission from Microsoft. | View Full Size

In some cases, Microsoft's information governance solutions don't fully match specific operational needs. This arises from unique demands beyond standard offerings, affecting data management and protection. Certain entities need more flexible data classification, accounting for sensitivity, criticality, and regulations, where Microsoft's options fall short.

Here are some possible areas where organizations may identify missing features or capabilities in Microsoft's information governance solutions:

  • Flexibility in data classification: Microsoft's information governance solutions may not provide the flexibility and granularity that some organizations require for data classification. Some organizations may want to classify data based on a combination of factors, such as its sensitivity, criticality, and legal or regulatory requirements, which may not be fully supported by Microsoft's solutions.
  • Advanced retention policy management: While Microsoft's information governance solutions provide some basic retention policy management capabilities, some organizations may require more advanced features such as event-based retention, custom retention schedules, and legal hold management.
  • Enhanced e-discovery capabilities: While Microsoft's information governance solutions provide some e-discovery capabilities, some organizations may require more advanced features such as predictive coding, near-duplicate detection, and more robust search capabilities.
  • Granular access controls: Microsoft's information governance solutions may not provide the granular access controls that some organizations require for their data. For example, some organizations may require role-based access controls, data-level access controls, and multi-factor authentication to ensure that only authorized users have access to their data.
  • Integration with third-party solutions: While Microsoft's information governance solutions integrate with many of Microsoft's other products, some organizations may require integration with third-party solutions for specialized needs, such as data classification, retention policy management, and e-discovery.

While Microsoft's information governance solutions offer a range of capabilities for managing and protecting data, some organizations may require additional features or capabilities to fully meet their specific needs and requirements.

Microsoft Purview Compliance Manager, shown in figure 2, is a tool within Microsoft Purview that aids organizations in managing their compliance requirements effectively. It offers a centralized dashboard for monitoring compliance progress, features pre-built assessment templates for various regulations, and provides a scoring system to evaluate compliance posture. Additionally, it includes actionable recommendations and tools for documentation and reporting to simplify the compliance process and reduce the risk of non-compliance.

Screenshot of Compliance Manager in Microsoft Purview with 489 suggested key improvement actions and a score of 50%.
Figure 2: Conduct regular audits of your overall compliance score in Purview. | Used with permission from Microsoft | View Full Size

Understanding the Benefits of Automating Governance

Automation can help organizations improve compliance with regulations and policies related to data management and protection by making it easier to enforce policies consistently, identify non-compliance, automate audit processes, protect data from breaches, and simplify reporting.

There are several areas within modern organizations where information governance automation can provide significant benefits, including:

  • Data classification and tagging: One of the key challenges in information governance is identifying and classifying data according to its sensitivity and importance. Automation can help by using machine learning algorithms to analyze data and automatically classify it based on predefined rules and policies.
  • Records retention and disposition: Organizations are required to retain certain types of data for a specific period of time, while other data should be disposed of after a certain period. Automation can help by applying retention policies to data and automatically deleting or archiving data when retention rules dictate that the date should be disposed of.
  • Compliance monitoring and reporting: Many organizations are subject to legal and regulatory requirements related to data privacy, security, and management. Automation can help by monitoring data usage, access, and file/data sharing to ensure compliance with these requirements and generating reports to demonstrate compliance.
  • Information security: Information governance is closely linked to information security, and automation can help organizations to identify and respond to security threats more quickly and effectively. For example, automation can be used to monitor network traffic and detect anomalies that may indicate a security breach.
  • E-discovery: In the event of a legal dispute, organizations may be required to produce relevant documents and data as part of the discovery process. Automation can help by searching and retrieving data more quickly and accurately, reducing the time and cost associated with e-discovery.

Automating your Microsoft 365 information governance processes offers increased efficiency, accuracy, and compliance. However, a pivotal aspect of successful automation lies in meticulous planning and development of your overarching information governance strategy. This ensures a comprehensive and cohesive approach, enabling you to harness the full potential of automation while aligning with your organization's broader objectives.

Creating Your Information Governance Strategy

Embarking on the journey of information governance planning is a pivotal step toward ensuring data security, compliance, and streamlined operations. For organizations at the outset of this process, establishing a strong foundation is essential. This involves defining clear objectives, engaging stakeholders, and crafting a comprehensive governance framework that aligns with both business goals and regulatory requirements. In this crucial phase, careful deliberation and strategic planning pave the way for a successful information governance program.

For organizations that are just starting their information governance planning, here are some guidance and recommendations:

  • Define clear goals and objectives for your program: Start by defining your goals and objectives for information governance. This will help you to focus your efforts and ensure that you are addressing the most important needs of your organization.
    • Action steps Collaborate with key stakeholders to identify specific goals and objectives for the governance initiative. Define measurable targets that align with business objectives and regulatory requirements.
    • Steps to success Successfully defined goals and objectives should be well-communicated across the organization, guiding all governance efforts towards achieving those specific outcomes.
    • Example Ensure compliance with data privacy regulations. Your objectives might be to implement automated data retention policies to retain customer data only for the required period.
  • Identify and involve relevant stakeholders: Identify the stakeholders who will be affected by your information governance program, including IT staff, legal teams, compliance officers, and business leaders. It is important to involve these stakeholders in the planning process to ensure that their needs are being addressed.
    • Action steps Create a cross-functional team including IT, legal, compliance, and business representatives. Hold regular meetings to gather input, share progress, and make informed decisions.
    • Steps to success Successful involvement of stakeholders results in comprehensive policies and practices that address various perspectives, ensuring a balanced approach to governance.
    • Example Engage with legal department: Collaborate with the organization’s legal experts to ensure policies align with legal and regulatory requirements for data protection and retention.
  • Develop a governance framework: Develop a governance framework that outlines the policies, procedures, and practices that will be used to manage information assets throughout their lifecycle. This framework should be designed to support your organization's overall business goals and objectives, and should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure that it remains relevant and effective.
    • Action steps Define policies for data classification, retention, access control, and compliance monitoring. Document procedures for implementing these policies within Microsoft 365 tools.
    • Steps to success A well-defined framework leads to consistent data handling, reduced risks, and efficient collaboration within Microsoft 365.
    • Example Framework Element: Data Classification Policy. Define categories like Confidential, Public, and Sensitive, with clear guidelines on handling each type.
  • Conduct a data inventory: Conduct a data inventory to identify the types of data that your organization collects, processes, stores, and shares. This will help you to understand the scope of your information governance program and ensure that you are addressing all relevant data assets.
    • Action steps Use tools to identify data stored in Microsoft 365 services. Categorize data based on sensitivity, purpose, and legal requirements.
    • Steps to success Successful data inventory provides a comprehensive overview of data assets, allowing informed decision-making for data management strategies.
    • Example Inventory Outcome: Identify customer personally identifiable information (PII) stored in various systems, including email, SharePoint, and OneDrive, for proper protection and compliance.
  • Prioritize your efforts: Prioritize your efforts based on the risks and benefits associated with different types of data. For example, you may want to focus first on high-risk data such as personally identifiable information (PII), confidential financial information, and intellectual property.
    • Action steps Collaborate with compliance and legal teams to assess the risk associated with different data types. Prioritize efforts based on the potential impact of non-compliance.
    • Steps to success High-risk data gets the attention it deserves, reducing potential legal and reputational risks while focusing resources effectively.
    • Example Priority: High-risk data. Focus on securing and managing personal health information (PHI) in compliance with HIPAA regulations.
  • Use automation to improve efficiency: Consider using automation to improve the efficiency, accuracy, and consistency of your information governance processes. Automation can help to reduce the risk of errors and noncompliance, and free up staff time to focus on higher-value tasks.
    • Action steps Explore Microsoft 365 features like retention policies, data loss prevention, and automated labeling. Configure policies based on your organization's needs.
    • Steps to success Automation streamlines processes, reducing manual errors and ensuring consistent enforcement of governance policies.
    • Example Automated Retention: Use Microsoft 365's retention policies to automatically delete irrelevant documents after a specified period, reducing manual effort.
  • Provide training and support: Provide training and support to employees who will be involved in implementing and using your information governance program. This can help to ensure that your program is successful and that employees are fully engaged and committed to its success.
    • Action steps Develop training materials and sessions that educate employees on proper data handling, classification, and use of Microsoft 365 tools.
    • Steps to success Successful training leads to employees actively participating in governance efforts, reducing accidental breaches and non-compliance incidents.
    • Example Training Session: Conduct workshops to educate employees about proper document labeling and handling sensitive data within Microsoft 365.
  • Ensure alignment with business goals: Ensure that automated information governance processes align with overall business goals and objectives, keeping the program relevant.
    • Action steps Collaborate with business leaders to identify how proper governance supports strategic objectives. Tailor governance policies to align with these objectives.
    • Steps to success Governance practices become an integral part of achieving business goals, reinforcing their importance throughout the organization.
    • Example Objective alignment: Implement Microsoft 365 governance to support strategic initiatives like expanding into new markets by ensuring data compliance.
  • Address missing features or capabilities: Assess and address any missing features or capabilities in information governance solutions, such as flexibility in data classification, advanced retention policy management, enhanced e-discovery capabilities, granular access controls, and integration with third-party solutions.
    • Action steps Identify specific gaps in Microsoft 365's capabilities that are critical for your organization. Explore third-party solutions that integrate seamlessly.
    • Steps to success Successful integration of third-party tools enhances Microsoft 365's functionality, providing comprehensive solutions for governance needs.
    • Example Integration with external services: Use third-party tools to enhance e-discovery capabilities in Microsoft 365 for complex litigation cases.
  • Monitor compliance using automation: Monitor compliance with regulations and policies related to data management and protection using automation, enabling timely identification of non-compliance.
    • Action steps Set up automated audits and alerts to track data access, changes, and potential violations within Microsoft 365. Regularly review reports.
    • Steps to success Automated monitoring ensures ongoing compliance, enabling timely response to potential breaches and non-compliance incidents.
    • Example Automated audits: Set up regular automated audits to track user access and changes to sensitive documents in Microsoft 365.
  • Use metrics for measurement: Use metrics to measure the success of information governance processes and their alignment with business goals, providing quantitative insights and performance tracking.
    • Action steps Define key metrics, such as percentage of correctly classified documents or adherence to retention policies. Regularly track and analyze these metrics.
    • Steps to success Metrics provide tangible insights into the effectiveness of governance efforts, allowing informed adjustments to policies and processes.
    • Example Compliance metrics: Measure percentage of documents classified correctly within Microsoft 365 to gauge progress in adherence to policies.
  • Regularly review and update the framework: Regularly review and update the governance framework to keep it relevant and effective, adapting to changing business needs and regulatory requirements.
    • Action steps Set up a recurring review process to assess the effectiveness of governance policies. Incorporate changes based on new regulations and business goals.
    • Steps to success Regular updates keep governance practices relevant and adaptive, ensuring ongoing alignment with evolving business needs.
    • Example Annual review: Conduct an annual review of governance policies to incorporate new regulations and business goals into the Microsoft 365 framework.

In the fast-paced landscape of modern business, information governance has emerged as a pivotal force for ensuring data security, compliance, and seamless collaboration. As I've explored in this comprehensive guide, the path to achieving mastery in Microsoft 365 governance is well-defined. By embracing the guidance and recommendations shared here, organizations can forge a new standard of excellence in information management.

As consultants and IT professionals, you wield the tools to shape the digital future of your organization. With each action step and example outlined, you're empowered to create a solid foundation that not only aligns data practices with business objectives but also safeguards against regulatory pitfalls. You're not just managing data; you're architecting trust, resilience, and innovation.

Your journey to taking control of Microsoft 365 governance is one of transformation – from navigating complexities to orchestrating streamlined processes. This is your opportunity to foster a culture of proactive compliance, to empower teams with tools that enhance productivity, and to elevate your organization's competitive edge.

So, embrace these insights, take decisive actions, and champion the cause of effective governance. As you navigate the realms of data classification, automation, training, and strategic alignment, remember that your expertise is reshaping the digital narrative. In doing so, you're not only safeguarding the integrity of data – you're laying the groundwork for a future where every digital endeavor is underpinned by security, compliance, and a shared vision of success.

Christian Buckley

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director (RD) and Most Valuable Professional (MVP), an award-winning product marketer, technology evangelist and host of the #CollabTalk podcast and monthly tweetjam series. Christian's 30-year tech career has included Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Evangelist for several leading SharePoint ISVs, and he was part of the Microsoft team that launched the hosted SharePoint platform in Office 365. He has worked with some of the world’s largest technology companies to build and deploy social, collaboration, and supply chain solutions, and he sold his first software startup to Rational Software in 2001. A co-author of books on both SharePoint and software configuration management (SCM), Christian is one of the most widely published names within the Microsoft ecosystem.