Information Chaos: the next big business challenge

“Every budget is an IT budget.  Every company is an IT company.  Every business leader is becoming a digital leader. Every person is becoming a technology company. We are entering the era of the Digital Industrial Economy.” – Peter Sondergaard, Gartner.

Most organisations now recognise that managing their information assets is just as important as managing their physical, human, and financial assets. So why are so many still drowning in a flood of unmanaged content and information chaos? The symptoms are plain to see: servers overflowing and multiplying, making it hard to find anything; sensitive information leaking, losing competitive advantage and exposing the organisation to litigation risk; information silos continue to develop, frustrating secure collaborative working; and because of cheap cloud storage, accessible from personal smartphones and tablets, knowledge assets are migrating to places beyond the reach of the company’s information governance processes – if indeed they have any!

Meanwhile new information continues to pour in, in an ever-changing array of formats, through multiple channels and on multiple devices. Organisations face rising costs for maintaining their legacy systems of record, and struggle to keep control of new systems.

No wonder many leaders in Knowledge Management believe that Information Chaos is the next big business challenge.

The core of all these difficulties is a lack of Information Governance.  With no rules, users can put their stuff wherever they like: the ‘C’ drive of their laptop, flash drives, Dropbox, etc. Shared network drives, intended to support collaboration, bring irritating access issues – and if no governance process is in place, users can create a folder anywhere, and give it any name. So no one knows where to look for things, and people mostly share files with colleagues using email attachments – leading to increased risk of data breaches, massive duplication, loss of version control, and excessive network traffic.

Information governance means:

  • identifying what information classes make up the knowledge assets of the organisation;
  • appointing someone to be the owner (and custodian) of each class of information – this will usually be the appropriate head of function; and
  • establishing rules for naming, storing, protecting and sharing knowledge assets.

The objectives of rationalising document management and introducing proper governance are:

  • To enable full exploitation of information assets, based on:
    • A business-led file plan and document management system (“A place for everything and everything in its place”)
    • Full Enterprise Search to improve productivity and consistency
    • No more repeating work (“re-inventing the wheel”)
  • To rationalise data storage and make savings, by:
    • Keeping one master copy of everything (wherever possible)
    • Maintaining clear version control (because sometimes it’s necessary to keep earlier drafts)
    • Eliminating duplication
    • Deleting ephemeral and superseded documents
  • To ensure the security and integrity of information, by
    • Applying appropriate access control to all information
    • Ensuring that sensitive information is classified and labelled correctly
    • Ensuring that approved and published information cannot be changed or deleted until the proper time

1.    Developing the Taxonomy

Information Governance requires a clear understanding of the kinds of information the organisation needs in order to function. At Sopra Steria I’ve worked with several clients on this problem using both top-down and bottom-up methods.  In a top-down approach, we help subject matter experts in the business to build a hierarchical taxonomy of their areas of expertise. The classes in the taxonomy will eventually correspond to folders in the idealised corporate file plan.

2.    Knowledge Audit

I supplement this top-down analysis with a bottom-up review of existing file structures, on the basis that frequently occurring document and folder names are likely to signify knowledge classes that need to be represented at the lower levels in the file plan hierarchy. I make use of a disk space analyser tool for this information discovery exercise, or knowledge audit. The more sophisticated tools not only keep track of the most commonly-used terms but also assess the scope and severity of the Information Chaos problem. They can identify where the duplicate, redundant and corrupt files are, together with their volumes. This information can also later support the cleansing and migration stage; i.e. partially automating the process of deleting “bad” files, and moving “useful” information to a new home in the revised corporate file plan.

In summary, an Information Governance project might consist of the following phases:

flow diagram through the sub head topics listed here

Experience has shown that developing a taxonomy is very difficult to do across an entire business (of any size). In fact, both the first two (parallel) steps in this process are best carried out piecemeal; i.e. team by team, business unit by business unit, project by project; joining the models together later, eliminating any class duplication en route.  This has the added advantage of delivering early benefits and demonstrating steady progress to management.

3.    Information Architecture

In stage three, the results of the top-down taxonomy work and the bottom-up knowledge audit are combined to develop a new Information Architecture for the business. The core of this will be a hierarchical folder structure similar to the familiar Windows Explorer layout, but with important differences. In the Information Architecture hierarchy the nodes are classes of information. For example, it may consist of generic terms such as Project or Supplier, while a File Plan would have a specific folder for each real-world instance of the class.  So the class, Project, spawns Project Alpha, Project Bravo, Project Charlie, etc; the Supplier class creates GoliathCo, Bloggs & Sons, and so on.

The other important difference is the association of metadata with each class, and with the corresponding folders in the File Plan.  This is likely to include the standard maintenance metadata (author, owner, creation date, last modified date, etc); plus the document type; any access constraints; and retention schedules and disposal triggers.

Carefully selected business metadata is an invaluable support to Enterprise Search, but can be seen as a nuisance when saving documents. For this reason, metadata should be set as high up in the hierarchy as possible so that content placed in lower level folders can “inherit” the correct values without the need for additional data entry by the user.

4.    Set up the new File Plan

The next step in the project will be to implement the Information Architecture in a File Plan. How this is done will depend on the selected platform; for example, an Electronic Document and Records Management (EDRM) system, SharePoint, or network shared drives (although the latter will not be able to support a rich metadata schema such as is described above).

5.    Cleansing and Migration

With the target File Plan in place the last stage of the project can begin. Owners sort through their holdings, deleting the documents they no longer need and moving the valuable content to the proper places in the File Plan. This is a “housekeeping” exercise, an inevitable chore for many, and management must be careful to allow their staff sufficient time to complete it.

With an agreed Information Architecture, and a File Plan based on it that all staff can use, proper Information Governance can be introduced.

ConclusionsHINTS AND TIPS 1. Solving your Information Chaos problem will mean an unavoidable “House-keeping” exercise to identify your useful content and delete the rubbish. 2. You can reduce the pain, and avoid a future recurrence, by developing a new File Plan to move your cleansed content into. 3. Develop the File Plan by a combination of “top-down” and “bottom-up” – but do it in small bites, joining all the pieces up later.

Addressing the Information Chaos problem requires: first, the development of a target Information Architecture; and second, an extensive “housekeeping” exercise to eliminate the dross and migrate the organisation’s vital knowledge assets. The benefits of such a project will be:

  • Reduction of business risk by ensuring:
    • full traceability of decision making
    • an increased ability to respond to enquiries (legal, regulatory, FoI, audit, etc)
    • a reduced risk of litigation
  • Boosted user productivity by
    • minimising the admin burden on end users
    • providing secure collaborative working through a shared Information Architecture
    • better re-use of existing knowledge assets
  • Cost reduction
  • Enhanced information quality
  • Streamlined document and records management processes

Satisfaction as information chaos eliminated…

Share with me any experiences you have of successful information cleansing and migration, and any tips on how you’ve made the process work in your organisation. Leave a reply below or contact me by email.

Published by

David Scott-Jones

David has thirty years’ experience in information systems and technology projects, predominantly in central government, defence and local government. He focuses on information and knowledge management, process re-engineering, and change management.

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