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Why SharePoint Data Hygiene Should be High Priority for IT in 2024

Why SharePoint Data Hygiene Should be High Priority for IT in 2024

Many organisations side-stepped troublesome questions of data structure and policy with their SharePoint implementation, and at the time that wasn’t a huge problem. But the impending arrival of Microsoft’s Copilot assistants means there’s a tsunami-sized problem heading their way. We look at the problem, and explain how it can be pre-emptively resolved.

A common problem

In many organisations SharePoint was turned on to enable remote and home workers to access files from outside the office. Then, there seemed to be little incentive for hard-pressed IT teams to combine this with a new data structure. Quite the contrary: people generally like what they know.

As a result, SharePoint was widely set-up as a web-based file server, retaining existing data structures, and any issues and bad habits that went with them. But at its core, SharePoint is designed to be highly searchable and that’s about to become a huge issue for IT.

What’s changing?

SharePoint is increasingly integral to the operation of your Microsoft infrastructure, and it will be critical to the effectiveness of Copilot.

Teams already highlights the importance of SharePoint. Few would argue against the value of Teams for their organisation, and it is SharePoint that underpins Teams – with every new Team creating a new site within your tenancy. And this is adding to IT’s data management issues.

It’s not just a question of data consolidation, although that’s clearly important. It is also one of governance and security, and Copilot will amplify any shortcomings in governance.

Copilot

Copilot, as in the one helping the pilot to fly, is the name for Microsoft’s artificial intelligence (AI) companions. Note the plural: there will be many Copilots. Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, has stated “We believe in a future where there will be a Copilot for everyone and everything you do.”

If you’re familiar with Bing Chat you’ll know it has been relaunched as Microsoft Copilot, and that its now more like ChatGPT – an operation that’s effectively part owned by Microsoft.

Other Copilots will provide AI assistance in virtually every aspect of workflow and that includes many IT activities, for example with Microsoft Security Copilot. But there isn’t yet much detail about the upcoming Copilots, so it’s hard to know what practical value they’ll be to your organisation.

If you’re thinking you’ll await the detailed information that’s perfectly valid, but don’t confuse that with doing nothing.

Microsoft is betting big on Copilot, and it will be heavily promoted, especially in terms of employee productivity benefits. IT should anticipate a clamour of demands from the CEO down, to ‘turn it on’. But doing so could expose fundamental issues with data structure and permissions, prompting some very uncomfortable questions around why these issues exist.

A nightmare waiting to happen

In the new world, someone might reasonably ask Copilot for ‘everything about customer XYZ’. Without the right data permissions and security in place, it could return quite literally everything it finds: payment history, profit margins, service issues, candid notes about individuals . . . everything . . . to anyone that asks.

Elsewhere within your SharePoint tenancy you may have a site for Board Meeting Minutes, or for Disciplinary Consultations, or in any number of other sensitive areas. Maybe these were set-up without restriction, or perhaps the ‘Everyone’ group was accidentally given access. While people will currently be unaware of this, a Copilot search could quickly change that providing them with some unexpected search results.

Clearly, not allowing Copilot to be turned on is one answer to this. But can you sustain that position in the face of colleagues’ perceptions that they’re missing out, or that competitors are gaining an advantage? How long for?

Take pre-emptive action

There’s still enough time to prevent the fear becoming reality. But not much time.

An important first step is reviewing and re-creating your data structure. SharePoint isn’t prescriptive as to what this should look like, so your organisation’s needs will play a key part in this. This will require the involvement of senior executives, but it’s a process we’ve successfully and painlessly guided many organisations through.

You also need to ensure that you’ve got an appropriate level of data hygiene. This will involve a Permission Audit, sensitivity labelling, access governance, data life-cycle rules, and employee education.

While this may sound demanding, it can be greatly simplified. Although, it’s important to review your organisation’s specific requirements, overall they’re unlikely to be dramatically different from other organisations. We have the learnings, templates, policies, and rules to draw upon to ensure that this isn’t a ‘blank sheet of paper’ exercise.

Copilot will only know which content is confidential if we tell it.

So, the Permission Audit will establish some basic rules to ensure that employees don’t have access to things they shouldn’t access and that they can access the things they should. While sensitivity labels will mark content as private and/or confidential. As with permissions a lot of the spadework can be automated.

Review existing data lifecycle rules around the creation, retention, deletion, and expiration of data. This will also provide additional data consolidation, compliance, and security benefits.

We regularly find that people don’t understand when they need to create a Team (adding another SharePoint site to your tenancy) rather than a chat. Controlling that process – again this is something that can be automated – combined with a little employee education can really benefit IT.

You’ll know if your SharePoint data structure hygiene needs some attention. Many in IT will be sceptical as to the value of Copilot. As is often the case, the real benefits may well come down the line as features and functionality are progressively enhanced. However, the clamour to ‘turn it on’ long before then could be overwhelming, so it’s important to make SharePoint Copilot-ready now. Fortunately, the availability of the expertise to help, combined with ready automation tools, makes this a manageable project.

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