To fully appreciate just how much the way we work has changed over the past few years, consider this stat from Gartner’s Digital Worker Experience Survey that was conducted 18 months after the pandemic first started: Nearly 80% of workers reported using collaboration tools for work in 2021, up from just over half of workers in 2019.
In the span of just a few short years, online collaboration tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have become central to our working lives. And even as many of us return to the office, it’s become clear that these collaboration platforms will continue to play a pivotal role in how we communicate and share information with one another.
Of course, the ability to seamlessly share information in real time doesn’t come without a few unintended consequences. For legal and governance teams, the shift to these collaborative cloud-hosted hubs brings an array of new challenges and open questions. Do we need to preserve all the data stored in a platform like Teams? For how long? What will it cost to fulfill legal hold, collection and preservation requests?
And as many IT leaders have come to appreciate firsthand, such requests all too often become urgent tasks delegated to their team. What steps should IT take now to prepare for the inevitable legal obligations of tomorrow?
Legal Risks Create New IT Challenges
While there are dozens of online collaboration tools currently available, two products have emerged as the dominant players: Slack and Microsoft Teams. As the trailblazer in the category, Slack helped create a new paradigm for workplace collaboration.
However, over the past two years Microsoft has methodically chipped away at Slack’s market share, capitalizing on Teams’ inclusion in their 365 product and its integration with popular productivity applications such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Microsoft has now established a firm foothold in the collaboration market and is expected to reach an estimated 270 million users in 2022.
This means that with every passing day, more communications are taking place directly within Teams, and the volume of Teams data being generated by organizations is increasing exponentially. That’s why it’s essential IT leaders begin thinking now about how Teams data – as well as the data generated by other collaboration platforms – may need to be used in litigation, investigations and other legal matters.
While eDiscovery requests might appear to be the responsibility of legal and compliance teams, in practice it’s often the IT team that must shoulder the burden. Many IT professionals may not fully appreciate that all data and communications that live in Teams are potentially discoverable in litigation.
The Rapid Evolution of eDiscovery
Discovery refers to the process in which both parties of a legal action are required to furnish relevant information to the other in a timely manner. Information can take the form of physical documents, email threads, and, increasingly, a broad range of electronic files and other digital communications that reside in today’s dynamic virtual environments.
Finding requested data within these systems can be an onerous and costly endeavor. While Teams has some built some advanced search functionality to facilitate this process, many organizations are learning that the conventional eDiscovery techniques they use to collect and preserve an e-mail chain don’t necessarily translate to an online workspace.
Recent case law demonstrates how these discovery requests are being mediated by the courts. In one case filed early in 2021 in California, the defendants in a lawsuit filed a motion to compel the plaintiff to produce a number of communications housed in Slack. The plaintiff responded by arguing that it would be an undue and unnecessary burden to produce these documents. They pointed out their Slack account contained roughly 30,000 messages, which could cost as much as $250,000 to process and review. However, the judge ultimately ruled in favor of the defendant, agreeing that their request to produce these records did not constitute an undue burden.
While such discovery requests are common, the increasing popularity of online collaborative platforms will undoubtedly bring new scenarios and questions to light. For instance, let’s say two employees are chatting within Teams and sharing documents that are being physically hosted on a separate cloud platform such as OneDrive or Dropbox. Should a document that’s actually embedded in the collaboration environment be treated the same as one that exists elsewhere and is simply linked to? Should the same retention rules apply to each?
3 Ways IT Can Ease the eDiscovery Burden
In the discovery phase of litigation, opposing counsel can request any content, no matter where it’s stored, if it’s potentially relevant to a case. While all electronic data has its challenges in the context of eDiscovery, collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams have their own idiosyncrasies which can introduce new complexities and costs to what might initially seem like a simple request.
For example, when a Teams user receives a document via a one-on-one chat, that document is stored behind in scenes in the Teams user’s OneDrive file store. However, when a Teams user receives a document in a Teams channel chat, that document is stored behind the scenes in Sharepoint. This subtle difference does not impact the Teams user very much, since the document appears right in Teams, but for an IT administrator the difference related to preserving and collecting the data could be significant.
Here are three tactics IT leaders can adopt to facilitate the eDiscovery process when collecting and preserving data from a Teams environment:
#1 Build and Maintain a Data Map
Collecting, processing, and preserving data in an efficient manner can only be done if you know that it exists and where to find it. A data map serves as a living inventory of your data, recording the types and formats of the data, as well as the locations, custodians and record-retention requirements of the data itself.
It is important for IT administrators to understand their particular implementation of Microsoft Teams, since decisions around the use of one-on-one, group and channel chats can impact the way data is stored. For example, as we noted earlier one-on-one chat attachments are stored in OneDrive and channel chat attachments are stored in Sharepoint. This distinction is important to understand and appreciate.
#2 Ensure Your Teams Settings Are Properly Configured
Like most online applications these days, Teams includes distinct tiers of capabilities for its various subscription levels. For instance, the basic tier of service doesn’t include many of the integrated eDiscovery features that are included with the Premium version (Microsoft Purview).
Premium features allow users to collect not only individual chat messages, but also group chats and team channels. Microsoft also has features as part of its risk and compliance solutions that enable IT organizations to both preserve and collect data with ease, and to use machine classifiers to proactively identify documents that contain sensitive information.
#3 Work with Your Legal Department
Microsoft is adding a number of tools to make legal compliance and IT administration easier than ever. Microsoft’s eDiscovery, Purview and risk and compliance solutions provide and continue to add configuration options and automation to improve workflows around legal initiatives.
As helpful as these tools are, they are only useful when used in conjunction with your organization’s legal needs. It is best for IT management and legal department management to work closely together to ensure that the systems are configured to meet overall organizational goals and objectives.