Wild Horses in Pens

As a horsewoman, I have followed the plight of the American Mustang in recent years, and I am once again struck by parallels with the management—or lack thereof—of information.   Good intentions, poor execution.  Hopes that the problem would disappear.  Management by crisis.  Inattention leading to untenable yet continuing costs.   Fighting factions with competing agendas and differing views of the facts, with no resolution.

A little background:

In 1971 Congress enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which declared that, “. . . wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” In 1976 and 1978 the Act was revised to add language that defines and describes what is to be done with “excess animals . . . which must be removed from an area in order to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in that area.” What this has meant in practice is that the mustangs have competed with ranchers for scarce resources on public lands. But no one anticipated the 20% annual growth rate of the herds, resulting in roughly 50,000 “excess” animals being sent to holding pens (where they remain today) to be managed at significant government expense, surpassing the number still on the open range.

Hindsight May be 20/20, But It Doesn’t Change our Behavior

The analogy between horses in holding pens and our glut of unwanted and unnecessary data is hard to miss. For both mustang and information management, hindsight tells us how we arrived at our situations today. No one anticipated the exponential growth of unstructured and uncontrolled content and the technological change that has sucked up resources, pushing the rare information management initiative down the queue. When we did recognize the problem, our attempts at fixing it were often thwarted by cultural barriers, a lack of clear and convincing communication among stakeholders, failure to define information management as a priority, and the difficulties in simply defining the problem in such a way that a solution becomes apparent and viable.

Our logo is an elephant in part because it represents the fable of the blind man and the elephant—each person seeing only a piece of the elephant and thus concluding it is a different animal. And so it is with organizational stakeholders and information governance. To some it’s primarily a compliance issue, to others a security issue, or a legal issue, or a storage issue.

A Prescription for Change

The answers for the mustangs and for dealing with our data glut are not pretty. They require difficult, expensive, and sometimes heart-wrenching decisions, both to find a better path forward and to eliminate the fruit of past mistakes and inaction. Suffice it to say that for the unadoptable mustangs in holding, the hard answer may be humane destruction—a far better fate than transporting and slaughtering these sentient animals. Their way forward is through controlled contraception, though in 2013 the government spent less than 1 percent of its wild horse management budget on contraception programs and more than 60 percent on horse holding facilities.

For the rest of us, dealing with our information challenges, we must first recognize the problem exists and resolve to work together. Absent that, things will never improve. Our way forward is similar: humane destruction for our vast stores of unnecessary data, and digital contraception for our future.

  1. Assume urgency—now.
  2. Set aside a single day for an intensive, focused, and above all, honest discussion among a handful of peers, each of whom has knowledge of a piece of the elephant—no cell phones allowed.
  3. Resolve to gather the facts, quickly.
  4. Identify one thing your organization can do in the next 3 months to make a difference.
  5. Repeat.

We need to do better, for everyone’s sake.