Looking for an upgrade in your contract management system? You may be most of the way there. Office 365, the cloud-based collection of Microsoft’s productivity tools such as Excel and Word, is becoming standard at many companies. The combination of Office 365 and Azure – the Microsoft cloud where O365 lives – has capabilities that will make enterprise contract management easier and more secure once the tools are harnessed to business processes.
Harnessing the tools is the job of contract management software, something we explain later in this blog.
First, the short back-story: Office 365 gives organizations the same package of productivity tools that they have used for years, plus secure storage in the cloud, but without the IT overhead of maintaining on-premise servers and desktop installations. Azure, Microsoft’s global cloud, is also home to SharePoint Online and countless other apps built to make life easier for business users. As of this writing, Office 365 has over 135 million users.
A big driver for most organizations has been the cost and risk of internal IT. This can be true whether you view cost and risk in terms of finances, available resources, or securing IT infrastructure. With Office 365, companies can reduce IT personnel or redeploy existing personnel to help users meet business needs using the new technology. Microsoft touts the security of Azure both from malicious attacks or system failures, and the resources it spends in this regard are well beyond corporate subscribers to Office 365 could deploy on their own.
So how can Office 365 serve as a platform for contract management?
Office 365 provides the basic tools that contract managers and lawyers need to create, edit, and manage contracts, namely Word, Excel and Outlook. But it is Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, that provides the greatest benefits for contract management.
Azure is a cloud computing platform service created by Microsoft applications and services global network of Microsoft data centers. Office 365 is a small part of what Azure offers. Other capabilities of Azure include
- Azure Cognitive Services – the underlying engine for content extraction, increasingly a part of onboarding contracts and identifying terms, obligations, and metadata.
- OCR capabilities – whether migrating legacy contracts or scanning third-party paper, OCR allows for more intelligent data extraction.
- Azure Functions Logic Apps – these allow for integration with Line of Business systems, notably those that report on finances. Connecting contract management in sales and procurement to the larger financial picture adds tremendous value to any contract management initiative.
- Microsoft Dynamics – an array of business programs including Finance and Operations management programs. Many organizations will continue to integrate with the large business databases such as Oracle, but Microsoft Dynamics lives in Azure and includes a variety of business applications to manage marketing, sales, retail, customer service, field service, and more.
- Blockchain support – Azure can facilitate blockchain transactions and ledger-based "smart contracts. "
Of course, moving contract management to Office 365 and Azure does mean moving to the cloud. Even five year ago, legal teams were concerned about contract management on the cloud. The reason? Control and security of the contracts and related documents. These concerns have eased in the face of reality as organizations gain experience on the platform – and Microsoft continues to stress security in its cloud-first, mobile-first strategy. From a contract control and security standpoint, consider the following.
Scalability and Storage – the Microsoft Cloud is available worldwide in over 50 Azure regions, with 2 to 3 data centers per region. This global distribution allows for regional autonomy so that contracts can actually reside in their national jurisdictions where that is required by law or company policy. These Azure regions make backup and replication possible on a scale beyond what most internal IT is doing. Options include Active-Active Failover, replication to a different data center in your Azure region, or GeoReplication across data centers worldwide, protecting against regional disasters. Replication twice daily is the default.
Specialized security arrangements exist for Azure in the United States, Germany and China. For the US alone, Azure compliance services include FedRAMP and DoD compliance certifications, CJIS state-level agreements, the ability to issue HIPAA Business Associate Agreements, and support for IRS 1075.
Document-level Security and Permissions – As important as infrastructure security, securing documents and user devices is a concern for contract managers and attorneys. Microsoft’s Office 365 allows for security rules with alerts, custom permissions, IT device protection, anti-malware and anti-spam protection. For contracts, a key concern is permission to access and edit. Office 365 offers rights management that controls who can see what, while allowing organizations to easily share documents with those who have permission. It is also possible to invite externals to securely collaborate on documents, a key capability during negotiations.
Support for Legal Hold / Retention Schedules – Microsoft’s offers eDiscovery case tools in the Office 365 Security & Compliance Center. These tools give the organization control over who can create, access, and manage eDiscovery cases. Once legal holds are in place, the legal team can analyze the data by using the text analytics, machine learning, and the predictive coding capabilities of Office 365 Advanced eDiscovery.
For those organizations maintaining retention policies, Microsoft retention tools can apply those policies to certain types of content, specific locations or users, or the entire organization. This lets the organization retain content – and later permanently delete it – in compliance with corporate policies and the relevant legal regulations.
Contract Management Software – Getting the Most Value from Office 365
While Office 365 provides the capabilities needed for secure and complete contract management, software vendors designing for the Microsoft Cloud still offer tremendous value. One reason for this is the old build vs. buy dilemma of the pre-cloud days. Getting your IT to create systems on top of Azure that will meet the business needs of your contract management process can be a challenge. In the time it takes IT to learn the requirements of sales, procurement, legal and the executive team, the organization delays the return on investment that comes from automating its contract management process.
Software vendors are already familiar with both Azure and Office 365, and have learned from the contract management use cases of hundreds of businesses across many industries.
Software such as Corridor’s Contracts 365 brings the potential in Office 365 to bear on the needs of most contract management initiatives.
Document Automation – Self-serve contracts that are created in response to a simple questionnaire are a valuable time saver, one that still allows legal to control the language used in basic contracts.
Workflows – Contract management software provides the workflow mechanisms to route contracts for review and approval, allowing organizations to choose the approval routes that make sense.
Tasks and Alerts – Along with workflow come tasks and alerts that tell that relevant stakeholders that something needs their attention. Contract management software has built the infrastructure to notify business users when contracts need their review and approval, as well as when contracts are approaching expiration or auto-renewal. Escalation of late or at-risk tasks keeps managers and executives aware of problems needing intervention.
External Negotiation – Sending and receiving a contract from within a contract management system, with the required tracking, permissions, and version comparison, is a valuable addition to the basic capabilities of Office 365. Contract management software provides a seamless path for doing so.
Contract-specific Reporting – Setting up a single report on a category of contract documents may seem like a basic task for IT. But creating dozens of specialized reports on demand requires a dedicated technician – unless you have contract management software. Contract management software with built-in reporting has usually anticipated both the use cases for such reporting and the metadata that needs to be present in the relevant documents to drive the reporting and give it flexibility. A business user can then configure his own reports and save them. A bonus: well developed software also has graphical displays of the reporting with point-and-click, drill-down capabilities that show the underlying data.
Obligation Management – A great value in contract management software is ensuring that what was agreed to gets done. Software with contract-centric design, such as Corridor’s Contracts 365, can relate contracts to relevant entities such as contractual obligations. Whether a manager extracts these obligations from contracts as part of the onboarding process or uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to do this, these obligations can exist as separate entities with owners, due dates and other metadata that can drive workflows.
LoB Integration – Contract management that is cut off from executive decision-making is of reduced value. Integration of the contract management system with other Line of Business systems gives executives real-time access to contract performance. It also gives contract managers access to centrally maintained information on counterparties, pricing, inventory, personnel and resources. Contract management software provides a central repository for contract information and the technical links required to pass the information to other systems.
If your organization is seeking a contract management solution or has decided that an upgrade is in order, a first step is to ask: What are your plans for Office 365? If Microsoft’s cloud-based infrastructure is in place at your organization, give thought to leveraging that investment with contract management software built for Office 365, including Corridor’s Contracts 365.