Information is the oxygen of business – it is essential and everywhere, an invaluable resource that, if treated correctly, can provide insight and business intelligence to drive customer engagement, productivity and competitive advantage.
Information is also a strategic asset. Treating it as such offers the opportunity for a multitude of commercial rewards, not least a strong competitive advantage; therefore it is vital for organisations to manage it effectively and efficiently to their own advantage.
Here are Iron Mountain, we recently conducted our third annual Information Risk Index with PwC, which surveyed mid-sized businesses and enterprises across Europe and North America. We found that organisations understand that information has value but are more concerned with defending it against data breaches or legal action than they are with using it to drive competitive advantage and growth.
Companies acknowledge that information has helped them to improve their decision-making, and to understand their customers better or drive revenue, but its potential in other key areas remains under-exploited. In order for businesses to best use big data this must change.
Our study found just two-thirds of UK firms are using information to enhance product or service innovation. Only one in five use information to increase their speed to market, while one in ten say that information has boosted product or service development cycles.
When asked to rank their information management priorities, the majority of UK firms (88%) opted for avoiding a data breach and avoiding legal action, or a fine for non-compliance. We could also conclude there was a clear correlation between firms who are well equipped to manage information risk and those who can extract value from their information.
The results are broad, yet consistent across mid-market and enterprise firms, across continents and the six business sectors surveyed. Unlocking the value of information appears to be a challenge for all.
No organisation would willingly turn down such an opportunity for competitive advantage, which suggests that the problem lies in not knowing how to achieve it. It is critical that companies get to grips with big data, and adopt a responsible-yet-proactive approach to risk and value, not just to protect the business, but to let it thrive.
No two businesses or sectors can manage their information in the exact same way either. It all depends on how they use data, what they use it for, and what they hope to get from it.
The key to getting things right is to put in place a robust, yet flexible, information management framework that can adapt and grow with the business' understanding of big data. This will provide a structure that the company can build upon as the full impact of big data becomes clear.
By considering the following checklist, businesses will be well placed to manage whatever comes their way, and they can then start managing big data as a benefit.
- Start at the end. Define the business goals and objectives and build your data strategy around them.
- Shrink the problem: make the challenge manageable. Everything is changing so rapidly that trying to find the perfect solution that addresses every eventuality will prove impossible. Decide on the information of greatest potential or risk to your business and focus your time and resources on harnessing that.
- Get to grips with incoming data. Prioritise the data coming in, understand what you need to keep and consider deleting or setting a timeframe for which data is kept before being deleted.
- Have a plan for what's left. Segment data by date, for example; anything older than a particular date can be archived on backup tapes in a secure archive. Dispensing with junk mail alone could free up 30 to 40% of the data space on your servers.
- Establish company-wide scalable, big-data-resilient information management systems that will help you to channel, analyse or archive unstructured digital content such as emails and social media.
- Know your legal obligations. In technology, law always lags behind practice and in the big data world it is particularly important to understand how emerging data protection and privacy regulations affect social media, real-time consumer data and location-based information.
- Avoid analysis paralysis. Big data informs and enhances judgment and intuition, it should not replace them. Big data volumes have immense potential for improved decision-making, but can also cause delay as managers try to sift through thousands if not millions of data points in order to make a decision.
- Opt for progress over perfection. Getting something in place is the most important factor. Design data management policies in good faith and implement them consistently across the business. What you decide will touch everyone in the business so it is vital to get all employees on board.
- Make it easy for all departments to see your information. People need access to the data, but they want it to be painless, transparent and easy. Ensure employees know how to search for and analyse the data so they can release its value. Integrate paper into the process by digitalising it.
- Vie the data in content. Data in isolation is essentially worthless. Don't get lost in the detail looking for patterns and trends so that you lose sight of the big picture.
- Consider your carbon footprint. Archived backup tapes consume a fraction of the power of other leading data storage options, including spinning computer disks and cloud storage (which in reality means storage on a permanently switched-on, artificially cooled server in a data centre off-site).
- Know where the data is and who is accountable. Always.
Too many companies believe they understand the risks and value of information, but are frustratingly passive about doing anything about it. Big data may well be the greatest business asset there is. To pass up the opportunities it offers would not be wise, and businesses cannot afford to take that risk.
- Christian Toon is the head of Information Risk at Iron Mountain.