Junk the Junk: Dealing with the Information Explosion

By Steve Roth

I am a hoarder. I have always been a hoarder. My school desk used to be a treasure trove of "useful" items – old pens, bits of rubber, half eaten cheese sandwiches, broken bits of Action Man and sticks. Most lay in the desk for years – just in case. Regrettably I can’t have a desk at work. But I have something almost as good – Outlook. Anything even remotely “useful”, contacts I will never contact, things that I’ll “get round to” – when I have the time, can all be stored in Outlook. No doubt they will still be there when I retire. But hey, storage is cheap.

Sound familiar? It should. According to analysts Gartner, we are a species of hoarders. Most of us use Outlook as a filing system – oblivious of the financial cost and the effect on efficiency. And it’s not just emails. We are drowning in information. According to the University of California, in 2003 we generated around 800MB of data per person per year – and it’s going to get worse. Not only is it detrimental to the business, it doesn’t do us any good either. “It is stressful to have all this information coming at us,” Debra Logan, VPN research with analyst Gartner told delegates at a recent Gartner summit on business intelligence. “Business is about making decisions, not sifting endless amounts of information, and because we have information overload, and because it is stressful, we have to deal with it,” she said.

Although business intelligence and ERP systems are essential, software is no good on its own. Spreadsheets constitute what Logan calls the phantom menace. Spreadsheets are used frequently to circumvent ERP controls. “You may have BI and ERP systems,” says Logan. “But what do accounts do, they take the information and put it into a spreadsheet." It is estimated that 30% of corporate data is resident in Excel. Is the answer to shut down collaborative systems or take spreadsheets away from accounts? “If we did that the world would come to a halt,” said Logan. “The answer is to use the systems but control them better.”

The truth is that it is easier to store things than to sort them – despite the fact that the majority of stored information is useless. Even worse it inhibits the business from finding the information that is valuable and cost a fortune is energy bills to keep the required servers humming. “It is not that CIOs see storage as a competitive differentiator," says Logan, "they are worried because it is completely out of control.”

The situation has been exacerbated by regulation. The basic response to regulation has been to store more. People are so risk adverse they store everything, Logan says. The tendency to store is helped along by a major piece if self delusion. “One of the reasons we have allowed ourselves to get into this is that we believe that the magic search is going to come along and sort it out. Google will not ride in on a white horse and save you from the information explosion. Search will help but it is not a magic bullet.”

More vendors will incorporate a search function in their software. By year-end 2008, the vast majority of user-facing applications will include a search interface, says Gartner. Although search will help, it will not solve the storage problem. Information is contextual. As Logan points out, Google is great if you have a general query and time on your hands. At work, it's a different story. Users want the document they are looking for, not a selection of documents. And they want it now. Furthermore, there is plenty of content that is not for general consumption - wages, performance plans, and strategic documents.

All businesses need basic content services – access to documents, version control, intranet, extranet and so on. However, there is evidence that people are no more disciplined about some of these systems than they are about using email. What they need is a process. They may not ask, but give it to them and they will use it, says Logan.

What you don’t do is leave the rules of engagement up to the IT team. It is up to IT to find the requisite technology. But it is for the business users to formulate a retention policy based on the needs of the business and a realistic appreciation of the regulatory requirements. Once the policy is written – automate it, says Logan. Only then is it possible to track information, decrease the amount of information stored, and take the load of your server.

So what do you need to think about? Start with the content management architecture, says Logan. Match the tools to the task and offer employees simple rules and incentives to change their ways. Think about lifecycles. “You need the business people to tell you what the business processes are. Once you know that you can embed them in metadata,” says Logan. Plan a portal strategy and adopt an enterprise information management mindset.

As for the junk, chuck it out - unless you can find a very, very, big electronic desk.

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