Microsoft 365 – more than an IT project

SaaS platform is an opportunity to rethink business operations

Companies have faced unprecedented challenges in recent months and the UK’s path to recovery remains uncertain. But those that have built their businesses on cloud-based IT should be in a better position to cope. If they need to ramp down at short notice they only pay for the resources consumed, such as user licences per month or hosted compute and storage. They can then quickly expand again as conditions become more favourable. Even with multi-year agreements that involve upfront commitments, the principle still holds that cloud costs are tied more closely to business activity, whereas traditional IT has a higher risk of ‘stranded’ infrastructure investment when demand drops.

Microsoft is among major vendors to have benefited from a global surge in cloud revenues. Customers are not only seeking more flexible pricing, but also turning to Microsoft 365 (M365) to address the urgent need for home working. The payback may have been less apparent in the past. But with so many employees now off the corporate network, the need for secure remote access has become a top priority. M365 gives IT centralised and granular control of security across the complex interactions of users, devices, applications, and locations. An employee using a company laptop from home can be safely allowed to access email, whereas the same employee’s iPhone can have additional restrictions, such as needing the latest version of iOS.

Companies are also looking to M365 for collaboration and productivity applications, notably Teams. More than ‘Zoom on steroids’, Teams is a hub for project-based working and is the current focus of Microsoft’s innovation efforts, with new features appearing almost weekly.

Changing work patterns

The impact of Teams in a company is often immediately visible as a sharp drop-off in internal email traffic. The introduction of cloud services can cause unanticipated shifts in working habits, with important consequences for operations and even business models.

Project-based working with Teams, for example, can progressively displace formal hierarchies and improve the flow of expertise around the organisation. HR teams may want to consider the implications for skills development and job roles. A more collaborative culture could be attractive for younger recruits, for example.

HR’s role in the business has become more strategic in the past few years. Boards of Management want hard evidence to back up investment in workforce skills. Senior HR managers many be pleasantly surprised by the new sources of data coming out of M365. ‘Workforce engagement’ is a notoriously elusive concept to measure, reliant on quarterly surveys of employees and managers. By monitoring Teams memberships and activity, HR analysts can see emerging patterns in how project groups are collaborating across departmental boundaries. One benefit could be to identify how quickly new employees become integrated and productive in the organisation.

Regulatory compliance is another area where M365 tools can be beneficial. One of the biggest risks to GDPR compliance is a lack of visibility into how Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is created and shared within and outside the company. Azure Information Protection has several tools for monitoring and protecting sensitive content by allowing employees to label their own documents and emails.

Departments can set up suitable labels depending on the type of data they handle, such as ‘GDPR-related’, commercially-sensitive’, ‘financial’ etc. Each item can then be tracked and protected according to company policy. For example, by encrypting all financial material, adding a watermark to commercially sensitive Word documents, adding an alert to sensitive emails, or ensuring GDPR-related spreadsheets are deleted after a set period of time.

Compliance specialists can be given direct access to manage the labelling and protection across the organisation. For the first time they have detailed insight into where confidential information is being created, how it is shared, and when it is archived or retired at the end of its lifecycle.

Fit for recovery 2020-21

Using cloud to improve IT efficiency and lower costs is understandably the focus of a lot of M365 investment. But organisations quickly appreciate that practically every functional area is impacted, presenting an opportunity to rethink the business. As the UK economy moves towards recovery, it’s a good time to evaluate the benefits of more fluid job roles, better compliance and risk management, process efficiency, and the development of workforce skills that boost competitiveness.