In the “information age,” information is arguably the most valuable commodity that any business can hold. From databases of customers to proprietary information about products, services, software, or algorithms, modern companies often live and die based on their data. With all of this information swirling around, though, are we reaching a point where organizations are going to be buried underneath the weight of all the data they are producing, receiving, storing, and managing every year?
According to commercial litigator Charles R. Ragan, such a future is precisely what we have to look forward to (or be wary of) if we fail to implement proper information governance and management policies. In June 2013, Ragan published a lengthy and thoroughly engrossing article called “Information Governance: It’s a Duty and It’s Smart Business.” The piece, which appeared in the University of Richmond’s Journal of Law & Technology, discusses in detail the difficulties of managing information in an age when “information volume doubles every 18 to 24 months” for the average organization.
A Growing Problem
As Ragan notes early on in his article, so far most organizations haven’t started to feel the strain of storing their information. While the average company does have a lot of data to manage—client lists, intellectual property information, employee and customer information, etc.—storage space for that information has thus far been affordable and easy to come by. Indeed, hard drives and servers are cheap—at least, cheap enough for organizations to hold onto their whole libraries of data without issue. But as more information is created at a quicker rate, storing that information is going to become a more expensive proposition.
Expense isn’t the only issue that Ragan addresses in his paper. Another pressing problem is usability. With so much information accumulating, organizations are going to have difficulty keeping it all organized and making sure that different documents can still be easily found and retrieved. In other words, making sure that all or most of a company’s files are stored in a single electronic database—and that said database includes an advanced search function capable of making all of those files manageable—is going to be a must in the coming decade or so.
Ragan also brings up the subject of document management as a pressing concern. He does so, given his professional roots, from the point of view of a litigator. His worry is that, if information is retained for too long, it could be subject to litigation claims or governmental investigations. Of course, an equally large concern is that the information could be lost or misplaced, thereby falling into the wrong hands. From intellectual property information to personal identifying information of employees or customers, a company’s data making its way into the hands of outsiders is something with the potential to cripple that business.
A Parallel to the Past
It’s not lost on Ragan that the problems of records management today all have parallels to the past. With paper filing systems, intuitive search functions were never even an option, which meant slow, manual searches for specific documents. In addition, out-of-date documents being used for lawsuit discovery or investigation is actually the reason that document retention exists. Policies to this effect were implemented to keep files from falling into the wrong hands—whether those hands belonged to thieves or government investigators.
Essentially, organizations looked at their files and determined how long they had to hold onto different files for legal purposes—whether for taxes or some other purpose. Data, of course, was also assessed based on its business value. For instance, a company would never delete something valuable to ongoing business, like a database of client contacts. However, documents that were deemed out-of-date and no longer necessary from a business or legal standpoint were destroyed. These same policies exist today to protect companies from theft, liability, investigation, and other outside threats.
Maintaining document retention strategies is more difficult today because every individual worker is receiving files and communications at a record rate. Most of these communications clutter up email inboxes, where messages (as well as the files included with them, such as attachments) can often sit for months or years after they are no longer relevant. Most individual workers have neither the time nor the inclination to worry about document retention policies, which means organizations are made vulnerable because so much data is going unmonitored. A similar scenario holds true for the documents and communications that individual employees generate on their own machines in the process of doing their jobs.
Darkness on the Horizon?
Between document retention policies that are passing by unobserved and the growing “glut” of information that modern businesses have to manage, Ragan foresees an upcoming “dark age,” where organizations will essentially bury themselves under so much data that there won’t be a clear path forward. An “Information Governance Program” is necessary, he asserts, to stave off that impending darkness.
What does Ragan mean by an Information Governance Program? Ostensibly, the core of any such program would be an advanced electronic document management system. A piece of software like eFileCabinet would be able to solve many of the problems that Ragan mentions in his paper—from taking a massive database of documents and making them all searchable from one central hub to making it possible to automate document retention policies.
However, software is just one component of what Ragan thinks is necessary for an effect Information Governance Program. Such a program, he reasons, would not only involve establishing policies and processes for storing, accessing, protecting, archiving, and deleting materials, but also apportioning authority and responsibility to members of the organization to make sure these rules are being followed. In most cases, this responsibility wouldn’t be given to just one person, but would include people from different parts of the organization. Business leaders, IT experts, legal personnel, records managers, those familiar with compliance standards, and numerous others would figure into Ragan’s information governance dream team.
Are you interested in learning more about what Charles R. Ragan has to say about the state of enterprise document management? Click here to read “Information Governance: It’s a Duty and It’s Smart Business” in full.