Data management is one of the core elements of any modern business, large or small. It's not just the figures on costs, revenues and resources, but intelligence on research, sales, market opportunities, and the information on work processes within a company.
Even the one man (or woman) band needs to keep a firm hold on their data, and managing it effectively is one of the priorities of a successful business.
The central elements of data management are policies, practices and procedures. This covers areas such as: what data should be shared, either among key employees, around the company or with partners; how employees access, amend and pass on data; and when it is appropriate to either archive or delete it.
Another important element is compliance, ensuring that a business maintains the records required of it by law and that these are kept secure but easily accessible.
Then comes data design, alternatively labelled data architecture, which may sound complicated to uninitiated but is basically about which data is collected and how it is stored, arranged, integrated and used in a company.
Any small business needs to think carefully about the relative value of different types of data, what needs to be quickly available, what needs to be extra-secure and how it relates to its processes, especially those that are crucial in keeping customers happy.
It has to think about the way its data is structured, which usually depends on the process it supports and the software. Sometimes the data is in a text format, sometimes numerical or binary, but it always has to be organised in a way that the software application can recognise.
Off-the-shelf or customised?
Most small businesses are likely to be using off-the-shelf software that effectively makes these decisions for them, but there may be some flexibility, and if they are in a highly specialised field it's possible that they have can have software customised or even designed from scratch. This is bound to be more expensive, and it will involve more of a risk if the business doesn't get it right first time.
Then comes data storage, for which there are plenty of options, but not all appropriate to every purpose. The hard drive on a desktop PC or laptop is the most obvious, on which it easy to amend the data, but there are also flash drives (your USB stick), optical media (CDs and DVDs), local servers and network attached storage devices.
There is also the option of storing data in the cloud – sending it to a service provider over the internet for them to store at their data centre.
The choices depend on how quickly you need to get at the data, how sensitive it is and whether it is subject to any legal regulations. For example, optical disks can be better long term preservation than hard drives but they are no good if you need quick access.
The final element is data security. Data has varying degrees of sensitivity, and for a small business it's likely that anything financial or with the personal details of employees and customers will be the most sensitive. But there are some steps that most should take.
These include installing a firewall to prevent unauthorised access, encrypting personal data, backing up data, and ensuring there is a proper recovery strategy in place if the on-site systems go down.
For most businesses the implementation will be more complex than this, but the principles should be the starting point for all.