In-Depth

Microsoft Teams Sprawl: What It Is and How Partners Can Fix It

Microsoft Teams is having its boom period and the remote-work revolution is driving it. But for many organizations, that hasn't been without its downsides.

Since its launch, Microsoft Teams has become the centerpiece of Microsoft's vision for a more digititzed and collaborative future. Microsoft has consistently touted the platform to its channel partners as a major revenue opportunity.

That notion more than bears out with Teams' adoption rates, especially since the start of the pandemic last year. Teams went from having 20 million daily active users in November 2019 to 75 million in mid-March of 2020, at one point adding 12 million users in a single week. As of Microsoft's latest quarterly earnings report in July, Teams' monthly active user base is at 250 million. It's clear that Teams is having its boom period, and that the remote-work revolution is driving it.

One downside of that rapid adoption, however, has been "Teams sprawl." According to James Corbishley, senior technology strategist at Gold Microsoft partner BitTitan, Teams sprawl is "the uncontrollable flow of information that's outdated or unused or irrelevant within Microsoft Teams."

In a recent interview with RCP, Corbishley described the symptoms of Teams sprawl, its causes and risks, and some ways that partners can keep the problem under control for their customers.

What a Case of Teams Sprawl Looks Like
"Teams has gone a bit out of control for quite a few enterprise customers," Corbishley said.

What does an out-of-control Teams deployment look like? Corbishley listed a few symptoms:

  • "Dead" teams (i.e., very rarely used teams) and empty channels.
  • Irrelevant or outdated data that has been attached to multiple tabs.
  • Different people posting the same information in different channels and teams, so there is no "master copy."
  • Loss of access to critical data after employees leave the company.

The Risks of Teams Sprawl
If your customer has shown signs of having unmanaged and unwieldy data scattered throughout their Teams environment, it's likely that sprawl has already set in.

"Productivity kind of grinds to a halt," Corbishley said, "or people mistrust the tool because they don't know where the data is."

That second factor, mistrust, is an especially pernicious consequence of Teams sprawl, hitting companies where they're likely to feel it the most: ROI. Employee frustration with Teams sprawl can easily become frustration with Teams and Microsoft 365 overall. Get enough frustrated employees, and an organization's initial investment in Microsoft 365 becomes a loss, as users are unable -- or unwilling -- to take advantage of the platform's full set of capabilities.

On a more day-to-day level, Teams sprawl can create "content chaos," Corbishley said, or even a "shadow IT" scenario where users start moving data out of Teams and into other repositories. Inevitably, there's also the security issue.

"When you've got this data and you're not managing it properly, you may be allowing access to specific information that may not be appropriate for certain users," Corbishley said. "Jane might have asked for access to some documents, so you just go and give her access without realizing there may be some financial reports about a customer that are inappropriate for her to view."

Why Teams Sprawl Happens
Teams has been around since 2017, but Teams sprawl didn't start to become a serious problem until the pandemic forced desk workers around the world out of their office buildings and into home offices. As Corbishley explained, before the pandemic, many employees were already well-versed in the other Office 365 apps -- Word, Outlook, etc. -- but not necessarily Teams.

As remote work became more widespread, however, organizations pounced on Teams to quickly take advantage of its remote collaboration tools "without actually thinking about the repercussions of how they need to use it, and proper usage," he said. Moreover, the speed with which many organizations started using Teams may have prevented IT shops from properly educating their users on how to use Teams without overusing Teams

"It's a classic case of, 'Here's a nice new shiny thing, let's go play with that,' without actually realizing that there are some sharp edges on that. You've got to be careful of winding it up too much."

Besides the pandemic, mergers and acquisitions are another contributing factor to Teams sprawl. M&As put IT teams under a lot of pressure, both with regard to time and money, to make the transition as smooth and quick as possible. Tasks like vetting Teams data to avoid duplicates and outdated items, determining and assigning ownership, or even coming up with standard naming conventions are likely to land on the back burner.

"A lot of M&A activities are down to timescales, so sometimes those [tasks] kind of get forgotten about because they've got a financial implication or branding implication," Corbishley said.

The result: Two separate companies, each with a lot of unmanaged Teams data, essentially double the extent of their Teams sprawl.

Some Solutions
Preventing Teams sprawl, according to Corbishley, takes a combination of software and "soft skills."

When it comes to software, he pointed to native tools in the Microsoft stack like Microsoft Teams analytics and reporting and Microsoft 365 Groups. "You can manage who has access to what, you can manage things like expiry dates, naming policies. You can delete archived teams and things like that within those tools, as well."

For its part, BitTitan has two offerings that can help mitigate Teams sprawl: Voleer, which provides automated assessments of an organization's Teams environment, and MigrationWiz, which can facilitate data migrations and consolidations in the case of an M&A.

As for soft skills, Corbishley emphasized user education. That can take many forms besides training sessions from IT; for example, he suggested "empowering champions in the business to say [to other employees], 'This is where you go to for this information. This is how you want to use this information. This is how to best use Teams.'" He also recommended setting up a "Ticks and Tricks" channel within Teams where IT can broadcast to employees advice for how to use new and emerging Teams features.

"It's important that people actually manage their data effectively. You need to make sure that you're creating and enforcing proper processes around the use of Teams," Corbishley said. "Unless you actually control that and give guidance to users on how to do that -- or restrict access for users to create new channels and teams -- then you're going to see sprawl."

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