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How do you value your data?

The IRMS conference is Europe’s premier event for the records management profession and, whilst much of the content is technical and specific, it’s also a great way to get an overview of trends and themes in information management. These days, it’s hard to imagine an organisation which isn’t dependent on its information – in all the forms that may include – to be successful.  So these themes are relevant for everyone.  Here are some of the key points from the recent conference.

Information as Currency

The stated theme for the conference was “information as currency”.  This makes perfect sense – information can be a store of value, in the same way that money is a store of value.  In the same way, it’s not much use unless you’re actually doing something with it. Several of the conference presentations showed how organisations are unlocking the value of their information, making use of data and not just locking away records as evidence of what happened in the past.

Digitisation of paper records was a common activity to these initiatives, which is unsurprising given that digital information is so much more easily shared around and sharing is clearly a vital step to unlocking value.  But much of our organisational information is still created in paper, for convenience and ease of use.  This paper is expensive to store and share, hence the need for digitisation.  Scanning may also seem to be an expensive process, but the take-away statistic was that it’s been cheaper to store information digitally since 1996 – and the longer you have to store the information, the better it is to have it digital.

Data is Outliving Systems

Interestingly, the lifetime of information is typically longer than the usable life of the systems we use to store it.  For example, you may want to store – or be compelled to store – a digital document for 25 years.  But the typical life of an electronic document management system is 5 years – and I can’t imagine using an EDMS from 25 years ago!  This mismatch is causing problems for Records and IT managers, who are faced with getting critical information out of obsolete systems and into new ones.  And there were a couple of real scare stories about the cost of doing so, especially in the context of public sector outsource arrangements!

Of course, there is a straightforward solution for this.  When setting up a contract, make sure that your supplier is using open standards and that access to your information is possible.  Ideally, create a decommissioning plan at the outset of a contract, even if only in outline.  That way, you’ll know what you’re up against when your chosen solution needs replacement.

It’s also worth thinking about file formats at this point.  Wide adoption of PDF as a document storage standard – including the self-contained PDF/A archiving standard – gives a good method to ensure you’ll be able to read a document in a future system.  PDF has always been associated with Adobe Systems, who were the original author.  But Adobe did the world of information management a great service by giving away the rights and now PDF is an ISO standard – it’s not going to change any time soon, it’ll be backwards compatible and anyone can use it.

But don’t forget about “metadata” – the information about the document, such as indexing data or usage history.  It can be very useful to know who created a document, who has looked at it or modified it to a new version – all of which counts towards legal admissibility, should you need it.  Unfortunately, whilst there are standards for this “data about data”, they’re by no means widely adopted by records management software systems.  According to The National Archives (TNA), most electronic document record management systems are not designed to allow an easy export of data.  But you should still ask how you’ll get back your audit trails and indexing data, when you move to a new system.  At Arena, we’ve worked on projects where customers had the images from a previous system, but had to re-process all of them to get back to a well-ordered and useable structure (we OCR’d the documents for them, recreating the indexes) because the outgoing vendor wouldn’t release the index data from the previous system – an expensive problem that is best avoided at the outset.

Cloud is Everywhere

A third recurrent theme was the wide adoption of cloud computing and open source solutions.  This is striking, given the type of information – key organisational data – being discussed.  Jurisdiction remains a crucial concern, however, as it’s clearly more appropriate to keep some classes of data with the boundaries of your own network.  However, the increasing adoption of mobile working is an accelerating driver towards cloud computing.  An often-aired view was that the only way to avoid unauthorised use of consumer cloud services, such as free DropBox accounts, is for the organisation to provide a credible alternative.  Credible means usability – at least as nice to use as the free alternatives – as well as enterprise-grade security and other technical features.  There’s a strong message for IT departments right there!

The risk of open source was also a strong trend, driven by presentation to users via web and mobile – this move away from desktop computing means that Microsoft is no longer the only game in town.  Examples of this were wide ranging, including Department of Business Innovation and Skill and the US Navy – both of whom presented their open-source solution programmes at the conference.  Considerable cost savings were a big driver here.

Value

This brings one back to the question  – just how do you put a value on your information?   A couple of presentations talked about valuing information in line with the investment made in creating the information.  That’s potentially misleading, as one can consider it a “sunk cost” which can’t be recovered and it’s unlikely to be a true reflection of the value derived from that information in the future.

Some other metrics for information value include the cost to recreate or replace the information if it was lost and the impact of not having it (including potential fines). However, a good valuation is to estimate the opportunity value available within that information.  A trivial example is to imagine you have 2 complimentary products, A and B.  You have some customers who have bought one but not the other and you know there’s a 50% chance of a purchase if you approach the customer with the additional product – armed with this knowledge you can easily put a value on your customer purchase records.

But, in the end, it’s clear that the value of organisational information is dependent on the context.  Realising that value is going to depend on IT, records managers (or whoever has ownership of the data) and business users all working together constructively.  That too, was a common discussion point throughout the IRMS conference!