Office 365 data retention – past and present – part 1 (past)

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Those of us who have worked with data retention, SharePoint and Office 365 know, that this is not easy. Content types, disposition workflows and record centers all make it into the mix. But this is all going to change within Office 365 and in this article, I want to give you some insights into this.

The reason for this is because the way we were used to work with data retention and (for example) SharePoint is changing in Office 365. I want to talk about the data retention possibilities in the classic world, and how we used this at a Dutch organisation. But I also want to focus on the advanced data governance possibilities of Office 365.

This article is made up of five sections:

Part 1

  1. Content life cycle;
  2. Classic SharePoint retention and disposition;
  3. Use-case of classic SharePoint and an innovative solution;

Part 2

  1. Office 365 a year ago (retention policies);
  2. Office 365 present (retention policies, retention labels and disposition overview).

Content life cycle

Believe it or not, but content does have a life cycle. Although, to be fair, not all organizations use every stage of this lifecycle. But when looking at retention and disposition of content, we do need a clear understanding of this lifecycle. And for this I use a classic model.


Classic document management

The life cycle of content starts with its creation. Let’s take a document for instance. A member of your teams need to write a business proposal. So, she opens Word, selects the required document template and starts writing. She stores the document on a SharePoint site.

During the process, she might ask co-workers to look at the document and change the document. Using automatic versioning and co-authoring, this is easy.  These are the first steps in a document life cycle.

If needed, the document is reviewed and approved using a workflow and the document get a new status. For example: “Final” or “Approved”.  As this is no longer a working-document, the document itself might be moved or copied to another location. These are the next steps in the life cycle of the document.

Classic records management

If and when a document is no longer valid or needed, it can be removed. But some content cannot be as easily removed. This content may need to be retained for a specific amount of time and be accessible when needed. Most organizations have policies in-place which detail what content needs to be retained, for how long and what needs to be done when the retention period has been met.

End the end of a retention period, the content can be removed (there are rules for this as-well). This is called disposition. Some content may have to be transferred to an official archiving body (for example, The National Archives in The Netherlands).

To be honest, a lot of organizations I know do not have any processes in place to support this life cycle completely. And we all know of organizations with 100+ TB of content on file shares, SharePoint (on-prem/cloud) sites, OneDrive, you name it. Most of the time, the records management part of the lifecycle is not addressed (fully).

Classic SharePoint data retention and disposition

As for SharePoint – it does offer some options to support data retention and disposition. Even in the on-prem world (dating back to SharePoint 2007) we could you a site-template called the Record Center. And this template is still available today.

If you want to support data retention and disposition using SharePoint on-prem or SharePoint Online using the “classic” options, you could use the Record Center template. And this will provide you with an out-of-the-box location for archiving and disposition.

In the classic SharePoint data retention scenario’s, we probably use functions like content types, information management policies and disposition workflows. These are also available in the Record Center template. The information management policy can be used from a content type or on the list itself. In which case, it applies to all content in that list.


One of the actions which can be added to this policy, is the so-called Disposition workflow. This workflow is used in disposition scenarios to control the removal of content when the retention period has been met.

Please note that I did not use the words “record management scenarios”. And that’s because this workflow cannot dispose of records. In a stringent record management environment, you will not be allowed to delete records. Unfortunately, this also applies to this disposition workflow. Kind of ironic isn’t it….. The only workflow designed for disposition, cannot work on records….

But that’s not the only drawback of the disposition workflow or the (out of the box) record management capabilities of SharePoint. SharePoint doesn’t provide the record management with any dashboard or information on content which has been retained or is to be disposed. And working with content types or lists and information policies is somewhat cumbersome. Let’s look at a real-life use case in which we solved some of these problems.

Use-case classic SharePoint disposition

In this use case, we worked with an environment which has an extensive amount of content in SharePoint Online. This content is stored in collaboration sites, project sites and document centres. These document centres are used for distributing, storing and publishing of official documentation which is created in the other sites.

More than one record centre was provisioned and these contained more than 50 record libraries. These were based on retention period. Every library was configured with a view depicting the retention period and running disposition workflows (if any).

This solution did not provide an accurate overview for the record managers. In addition, they needed an overview of to-be disposed content. This list was needed to inform the data-owners of the possible deletion.

So we came up with this innovative solution.

disposition workflow

A record management dashboard was created. This dashboard showed all tasks related to the running disposition workflows. A “bulk-approve” button was added to quickly approve pending dispositions.

A PowerShell script (running in Azure) was created. This script enumerated all content which was about to reach its retention period. Information on this content (metadata) was then stored in a SharePoint list. This list could then be used as an overview of all to-be disposed content and could be filtered/sorted and exported to Excel – providing a historical overview.

I’m still very proud of this solution, especially the disposition overview part. And now it’s great to see that Microsoft has added a disposition overview dashboard in Office 365. So, let’s take a look at those options.

In part 2 of this blog I will talk about the new possibilities offered by Office 365. We’ll be talking about advanced data governance, data labels and more.

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