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.

From Records Management to Knowledge Management

The amount of information we generate is growing exponentially.  For most organisations a lot of this is ephemeral, but amongst the junk will be nuggets of irreplaceable knowledge – the organisation’s unique intellectual property.  Managing it is generally recognised as a critical process, so why are we so good at managing other key assets like finance, property, vehicle fleets and human resources, but so bad at managing knowledge – the asset that makes our business unique?  It should be the goal of every organisation to create an environment in which the value of knowledge is well understood by everyone, and information is reliable, shared appropriately, readily accessible, and being used to benefit the business.

In the public sector, and in regulated industries, keeping records and destroying them when they are no longer required is enforced by legislation.  Hence the need for Records Management (RM):  to keep records as evidence of financial probity; to document what decisions have been made, what happened, and why; and to provide proof of compliance with obligations.

To manage records throughout their life cycle, many organisations have introduced Electronic Document and Records Management (EDRM) to help them to fulfil their obligations under the various Public Records Acts.  EDRM systems preserve records with integrity for as long as they are needed, and then trigger their disposal after a predetermined retention period.

Sopra Steria’s work with the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) is a great example of this.  The project was the largest document and records management installation in northern Europe.  The system now manages over 36 million documents, offering greater efficiency in handling and sharing information.  Ten years from launch we still manage the service in line with NICS governance policies, ensuring that information is always available when needed, and conforming to the latest assurance standards.

In the wider context most organisations also use their EDRM systems to manage all their digital knowledge including those assets that are not covered by legislation – their intellectual property, standards, methodologies, business processes and working practices.  This is where we move up to the world of Knowledge Management (KM).  Significant value can be achieved here by:

  • making the most of scarce expertise, ideas and experience widely available beyond individual networks;
  • ensuring consistency of approach; and
  • avoiding valuable staff time being wasted on repeated mistakes and “reinventing the wheel”.

By using such knowledge stores properly, dramatic improvements can be made in the organisation’s productivity and effectiveness, and significant efficiency savings can be realised.

There are lots of tools for managing explicit knowledge – information that is set out in tangible form.  Even if content is initially received in hard-copy form it is easily scanned and if necessary converted to convenient text form by Optical Character Recognition (OCR).  EDRM systems have been in common use for more than fifteen years.  Collaboration tools such as MS SharePoint have been growing in popularity for project teams and communities of interest.

Unfortunately explicit knowledge is also very easy to mismanage.  E-mail, instant messaging and social media make it very easy to conduct business online and to communicate ideas and news quickly, but their very convenience makes for poor record-keeping.  Once upon a time the organisation’s registry clerks kept copies of every communication with customers and suppliers and managed the filing system, but they’re long gone and we all have to do our own filing now.  Few organisations provide that kind of training for digital documents, and most of us aren’t very good at it.  Social media is particularly uncontrolled from an information governance point of view.

Still at least explicit knowledge is (by definition) available in digital form.  Rather more of a challenge is implicit knowledge; that is, information that is not yet set out in tangible form but could be made so.  Doing so is mostly about discipline.  Do your staff keep their calendars up to date, and are the calendars open to their colleagues?  Do your sales team record their leads, customer visits, every phone call?  This where contact management and customer relationship management systems come in.  Making every salesman’s customer knowledge explicitly available would make the whole sales team more effective.  Unfortunately for many organisations the incentives operate the other way: my bonus, indeed my worth to the company, may depend on me keeping my customer knowledge to myself.  The knowledge capture tools are there but the culture works against sharing.

Hardest of all to manage is tacit knowledge: information locked in people’s heads that may be extremely difficulty operationally to make explicit: skills and experience that people develop over time and may not even appreciate are knowledge; the little tricks and workarounds you learn that aren’t in any manual; the best sequence in which to carry out certain tasks; how to jiggle a component to fit it into an assembly.

Tacit knowledge walks out of the door when experienced staff move on.  Are too many of your most valuable and knowledgeable staff getting close to retirement?  Are you having to make redundancies?  Knowledge Harvesting is the process of gathering tacit knowledge from leavers before it’s too late.  It requires experienced interviewers to explore the leaver’s skills and experience with him, and it takes time.  The leaver must be given the headroom and resources to make his tacit knowledge explicit or pass it on to his successors in other ways.

To summarise, there are essentially two approaches to improving how your organisation captures and shares its hard-won knowledge:

  • Codification – capturing and storing content in a well-structured way so that everyone in the organisation can locate and access the knowledge it represents easily – obviously this works best for explicit knowledge and is virtually impossible for tacit; and
  • Personalisation – connecting people and thereby building knowledge networks. We all tend to do this naturally to some extent, but tools are available to make the process much more effective.  This is clearly the best solution for tacit knowledge.

These two approaches deliver business value in different ways.  Codification makes explicit knowledge widely available across the organisation.  With well-structured file plans, good metadata schemas, and powerful enterprise search tools users can often find everything they need to know at their workstations in seconds, hugely boosting productivity and work turnround times.

Personalisation is there for tacit knowledge and implicit knowledge that has yet to be codified.  Everyone has an informal knowledge network but in large organisations no one can know everyone.  Therefore it makes sense to provide tools to help you in Belfast find someone who may know the answer to your problem, whether they are in London or in Edinburgh, Hong Kong or Sydney.

In addition an individual user can approach their search for knowledge in two ways:

  • they can exploit the organisation’s information architecture (digital content or human network) by a directed search, or by use of metadata, tags or text strings; or
  • they can explore using his intuition and the names of file plan folders or communities as his guide.

Combining these gives the matrix below, with examples of tools and processes in each case.  (This model, and the summary terms Harvest, Harness, Hunting and Hypothesise, were proposed by Tom Short of IBM Global Services).

matrix describing

Conclusions

  • It is gradually becoming accepted that knowledge is a key business asset. Organisations need to bring in the working practices and disciplines required for the powerful new tools to support knowledge sharing.  Otherwise  many opportunities to boost productivity will be missed.
  • Effective knowledge management delivers significant business value by making the most of scarce expertise, ideas and experience; ensuring consistency of approach; and avoiding valuable staff time being wasted on avoidable errors and “reinventing the wheel”.

Share with me any experiences you have of successful Records and Knowledge Management and any tips on how you’ve made it work in your organisation.

Discover more about our experience working with NICS.