information management

Our firm’s elephant icon is a nod to The Blind Men and the Elephant, the familiar, age-old parable for how we often do not see the big picture, but instead only the parts we directly encounter. And so it goes for organizations’ data. Individual company functions and departments often have their own, limited perspectives on information, seeing only the risks and opportunities with which they are directly familiar. Limited perspective yields limited perception – not a good thing for identifying, understanding, and controlling organizational risk.

I actually prefer a slightly different version, The Blind Elephants and the Man:

One day, six blind elephants were in a heated argument about what Man was like. To resolve their dispute, they sought out and found a man. The first elephant “felt” the man and then proclaimed “Man is flat.” Each of the other elephants, in turn, felt the man, and they all agreed.

The moral? Limited perspective not only yields limited perception – it can also lead to very bad results.

“Information Governance” has become an overused buzz-phrase, often trotted out as marketing mumbo-jumbo for selling technology tools.  In all the hype one can easily lose track of what it really means.  At its heart, Information Governance is no more – and no less – than making sure the organization sees the big picture of information compliance, cost, risk, and opportunity when making strategic decisions.

The Information Governance perspective is a ready-made, scalable resource. Any organization can make meaningful headway, right away, by simply adopting an inclusive IG perspective when addressing information matters, before investing in significant organizational changes and expensive technology tools.

What does this mean? Simply this – whenever any information-related issue is dealt with or decision will be made by your organization, be sure to ask the following:
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Weird SportAs you toss and turn in bed, you picture yourself on a strange playing field with other athletes swirling around you.  You have absolutely no idea what sport you are playing, nor a clue what the rules are.  It all feels beyond embarrassing, and downright dangerous.

This is not just a bad dream – it’s the reality for companies possessing third-party data without clarity on what rules and responsibilities apply.

Most companies possess some data that they do not truly and solely own.  Perhaps your company signs a nondisclosure agreement and obtains others’ information while evaluating a business opportunity.  Or maybe your company is a service provider that receives or generates data on behalf of customers or clients.  Your company has possession of the data, but it remains responsible to the third-parties if there’s a problem.

What kinds of problems? Well, what if the third party’s data is lost, corrupted, misappropriated, hacked, or held for ransom?  What if the cost of maintaining the information, after the work concludes or need passes, becomes onerous?  What if the information becomes relevant in future litigation?  Who is authorized to make decisions about the information when the unexpected happens, and who is responsible for the expenses and exposures?

Information Governance – your organization’s strategic approach to managing information compliance, cost, and risk while maximizing information value – is tailor-made for this commonplace scenario.  Here’s how it works:
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“GarGarbage Dumpbage in, garbage out” – we know that already, right?  Well … what we know about information quality and what we do are not always in sync. Just for kicks, consider information quality through the lens of the industrial quality movement.

Looking down from 30,000 feet, the history of industrial quality goes something like this – Medieval Guild craftsmanship, then Industrial Revolution product inspection, and then the post-World War II focus on quality process management.  It sounds arcane, until one remembers the 1980’s visceral fear that Japanese manufacturers were beating the pants off of U.S. manufacturing in terms of quality and value. Enter W. Edward Deming, who had been deeply influential in Japan’s post-war industrial recovery, and who became the evangelist for quality management practices in U.S. industry.  Deming exhorted American management to adopt product and service quality as the driving force in all business practices.

What’s that got to do with Information Governance?  It’s this – regardless of industry, in today’s world you’re actually in the information business.  So, business quality increasingly means information quality.  

Key attributes of data for business are sometimes referred to as the four Vs: volume, variety, velocity, and veracity.  Most folks focus on the first three, but the veracity of data – its integrity, its reliability, its quality – is crucial for business decision-making.   In a 2016 survey of executives by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, 80% of respondents admitted that their organization used flawed information to make a strategic decision at least once in the last three years. And IBM estimates that poor data quality costs the U.S. economy $3.1 trillion each year.
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Destroyed CDs - shredded by a shredder.It lingers on – that vaguely guilty feeling that there’s something sanctionable, even illegal, about routinely destroying business data.  That’s nonsense.  It is well-settled United States law that a company may indeed dispose of business data, if done in good faith, pursuant to a properly established, legally valid data retention schedule, and in the absence of an applicable litigation preservation duty.

Even the courts themselves dispose of their data.  Federal courts are required by U.S. law to follow a retention schedule approved by NARA, and to ultimately destroy records or transfer them to the Federal Records Center, as directed by that retention schedule.

Here are but a few of the many case decisions on this point:
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Endless book tunnel in Prague libraryAs the information tide relentlessly rises, many organizations simply see an IT problem, to be fixed with a purely IT solution – more storage capacity, more tools, or both.  But merely adding more storage is a reaction, not a strategy.  And adding technology tools without the right governance rules invariably makes things worse, not better.

This is not a criticism of your IT team.  Instead, the problem lies in a misunderstanding of the fundamental challenge.  Just as you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight, you shouldn’t merely bring more storage capacity and IT tools-without-rules to your fight to regain control over your organization’s information.  What’s needed is governance.

More Storage is Not the Answer

If the accelerating, worldwide growth of data were a throw-back movie, it would star Vin Diesel – Fast & Furious.  It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the magnitude and velocity.  Try this – for context, the total content of all catalogued books in the Library of Congress has been estimated variously at 10 to 15 terabytes of data.  IDC’s Data Age 2025 study pegged the world’s 2018 data volume at 33 zetabytes (33 billion terabytes), and forecasted that data volume will reach 175 zetabytes by 2025, a more than quadruple increase.  In case your head hasn’t exploded … apparently 1,000 zetabytes is a yottabyte, and as of yet there is no officially recognized International System of Units name for 1,000 of those (I propose “Lottabyte”).

Why the dizzying growth?  Internet use is certainly a contributor (a lot can happen there each minute).  But it is the Internet of Things, combined with the Industrial Internet, that will increasingly generate gobsmacking quantities of device and machine data.

Let’s hone in on the reality faced by individual organizations. Unstructured data (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, audio and video files, email, and the like) can comprise 80% to 90% of total enterprise data.  Unstructured data is often largely uncontrolled, scattered across network drives, user’s computers, and the organization’s electronic content management (ECM), collaboration, and e-communication systems.

Veritas’ Data Genomics Project produced an interesting 2016 study that analyzed tens of billions of unstructured data files, with over 8000 file extensions, at Fortune 500 companies.  Key finding?  Storage capacity grows each year, but so does data volume – 39% annual growth in the number of unstructured data files, year over year.  Just as a bigger closet or garage at home results in the accumulation of more stuff, when businesses add larger on-premise or cloud repositories without governance controls, it inevitably leads to larger data volumes.  More storage simply enables more data hoarding.

Tools Without Rules are No Help Either


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A metal cattle brand with the word brand as the marking areaThe “business case” for information governance often focuses solely on quantifying specific costs for data management and exposures for data security and ediscovery.  Number crunching is of course important, but it misses something bigger, more strategic, and ultimately more crucial to the organization – its brand.  Companies, regardless of industry, are fundamentally in the information business.  It follows that how an organization manages its information assets reveals how the organization manages itself.  And that matters, a lot, because companies that align themselves with their brand, achieving brand discipline, are more successful.

In their seminal 1993 Harvard Business Review article, Customer Intimacy and Other Value Disciplines, Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema made the case for how highly successful companies (1) understand and redefine value for their customers, (2) build “powerful, cohesive business systems” to deliver more of that value than their competitors, and (3) raise their customers’ expectations beyond what the competition can deliver.  The most successful companies do this work within at least one of three disciplines: operational excellence, product leadership, or customer intimacy.

Treacy and Wiersema based their insights on an intensive study of 40 companies that achieved breakout success in their markets.  They followed the article with their quintessential business strategy book The Discipline of Market Leaders.  Twenty years later, this book is likely still on your CEO’s bookshelf.

What’s the point for information governance?  It’s this – a successful company brand cannot be lipstick on a pig.  It must be organic, a discipline that pervades the organization from the bottom to the top, inward and outward, in its core processes, business structure, management systems, and culture.  And how your organization manages information value, cost, compliance, and risk is no exception.  Simply put, stronger information governance yields a stronger brand for your business.  And this is true for each of the three disciplines of highly successful companies:
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One Bullet in Gun BarrelHaving too much data causes problems beyond needless storage costs, workplace inefficiencies, and uncontrolled litigation expenses.  Keeping data without a legal or business reason also exacerbates data security exposures.  To put it bluntly, businesses that tolerate troves of unnecessary data are playing cybersecurity roulette … with even larger caliber ammunition.

Surprisingly few U.S. data security laws and standards expressly require that protected data be compliantly disposed of once legal and business-driven retention periods expire.   PCI DSS v3.2.1, Requirement 3.1, provides “[k]eep cardholder data storage to a minimum by implementing data retention and disposal policies ….”  HIPAA regulations  mandate that business associate agreements require service providers, upon contract termination, to return or destroy all PHI received or created on the covered entity’s behalf, if feasible.  Alabama and Colorado require that records containing state-level PII be disposed of when such records are no longer needed.  And biometric data privacy laws in Illinois, Texas, and Washington generally require that biometric data be disposed of once it has served its authorized purpose.

Instead, most such laws and standards focus on securely sanitizing or destroying storage media.  For example, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework v. 1.1 includes as a security control (PR.IP-6) that “[d]ata is destroyed according to policy,” and ISO 27002 (§ 8.3.2) provides that “[m]edia should be disposed of securely when no longer required, using formal procedures.”

But data security is not achieved by simply running through a checklist of explicit compliance requirements – it instead requires assessing risks and establishing effective security controls.  And one of the most powerful security controls is to not keep too much data, for too long.
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3d blue cubes come together from different directions.Dr. Stephen Covey reminded us that “important” is not the same thing as “urgent.”  Records retention reminds us that important is not the same thing as exciting.  I get it – records retention schedules are boring.  But the fact remains that literally thousands of records retention requirements apply to your organization’s information.  I know, because my firm finds and tracks these laws as part of our decades of retention schedule work for clients across industries.  And your regulators expect you to know them too.

Records retention requirements generally apply to information’s content, regardless of the information’s medium – electronic data, paper, you name it.  The requirements are scattered across the federal and 50 states’ statutory and regulatory codes, often with unusual retention mandates.  Here are just a few:
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Image of one hundred bill burning “If your clients don’t have a records management system, they may as well take their money out into the parking lot and set it on fire.”

– Former U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge John Facciola

We all know that ediscovery is expensive, and various research reports have so confirmed. The definitive Rand study, Where the Money Goes: Understanding Litigant Expenditures for Producing Electronic Discovery, found that median costs for collection, processing, and review are $17,507 per gigabyte (roughly 3,500 documents or 10,000 e-mails).  The math is not pretty – a case involving 482 GBs of source data could exceed $8 million in ediscovery costs.

And on top of that are preservation costs. The  Preservation Costs Survey demonstrated that large companies incur significant fixed costs for preservation (for in-house ediscovery personnel and also for procurement and maintenance of legal hold management and data preservation technology systems), averaging $2.5 million annually.  More significant is the cost of employee time lost in complying with legal holds.  While companies with up to 10,000 employees incur the average time cost of over $428,000 per year, costs for the largest companies exceed $38 million per year.

There is indeed great complexity in how to cost-effectively process huge amounts of data through the ediscovery funnel. Tighter management of ediscovery processes continues to be important.

But as we ponder how to cut costs, let’s not confuse symptoms with causes:
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