Your most valuable business asset is least secure: here's what to do about it

Take good care of your data
Take good care of your data

A CIO's job is never just to manage IT systems. It's also to look after one of the company's most important assets: its information. When used correctly, the right data will divulge significant information about a myriad of things an organisation can really benefit from, including what customers think, how well certain products are selling and where services need to be improved. This isn't a mystery – it's the foundation for Fortune 500 companies like Google and Facebook.

But data can prove valuable even for companies that aren't internet-native. For example, every company has a customer database which, when properly analysed, can give insights to inform future campaigns or reveal untapped markets. Sales data can also be a goldmine of information. Recently, for example, the global airline industry predicted a 50% rise in profits for 2014 through its use of data analytics.

By being more fastidious about collecting data from diverse sources – everything from maintenance data to customer reactions on social media – correlations between factors become identifiable and those relationships can be leveraged to drive sales and optimise pricing. CIOs are expected to identify and leverage information like this, turning data from an asset into a profit. But that job is made far harder by a communication breakdown that's endemic in every company.

Employee ignorance

While CIOs are well aware of the value of data, most employees aren't – 36% of European workers asked in a Canon study didn't understand the link between information and their company's profitability, a rate that's even higher among more junior employees.

This stat can turn into a CIO's worst headache, as the very people who create, organise and input the data are unaware of its value. Such dichotomies are common in the workplace, but prove particularly challenging for CIOs given the slightly abstract value of information (for front-line employees, at least). After all, making the link between a spreadsheet filled with customer information and company profits can be a bit of a stretch for anyone that is not directly involved in information processing.

In turn, this lack of understanding creates major operational problems for the CIO. Not seeing the link between profitability and information can lead to carelessness or inattention from an employee. This can result in broken, incomplete or badly organised data sets or worse, a full-blown security crisis.

A lack of understanding also means a loss of opportunity. When they understand the value of data, front-line employees will be far more likely to spot opportunities to capture information and pass those ideas back up the line.

Two steps to heaven

The answer to this problem lies in two logical steps: better training and efficient information management systems. Canon's study showed the value of some simple education: with proper training, the percentage of employees who get the link between information and profitability goes up by nine points (from 64% to 73%). Once again, an emphasis on junior staff members is crucial, as they are the most likely to process company data while being the least likely to learn about it.

What about the type of training? It depends on the nature of your business but education about the value of data management goes hand-in-hand with teaching employees proper procedure for storing information. Employees average 25 minutes a day wasted searching for documents, a figure that can once again be drastically improved with standardised processes in place.

Training also complements the second step: making sure you've got effective, but simple, data management systems in place. Teaching workers how and why to manage their information is no good if your system is overly complicated; they are likely to give up before they start.

The figures speak for themselves – according to our research, around half of European office workers don't believe that their company's information storage systems are organised or easy to use. Disparities in file systems, naming and formats are among the biggest difficulties they face.

In fact, inconsistencies between paper and digital formats are a common complaint. These inconsistencies not only make it less likely that employees will follow the company system, but storage in bad file formats (or paper) creates obvious problems for trying to amalgamate and analyse data when it is needed.

Information is valuable. For CIOs this is obvious, but because data isn't normally listed on the balance sheet, there's an uphill battle in persuading employees (and occasionally even fellow C-suite execs) of this fact. However, by designing and implementing a proper data management and training system, you can get employees onside and safeguard one of your company's most important assets.

  • Quentyn Taylor is Director of Information Security at Canon EMEA

Quentyn Taylor is the Senior Director of Information Security and Global Response at Canon for Europe, Middle East and Africa.