As professionals who work primarily with “data” of various forms, we are working with the lifeblood of an organization. Naturally, if you were to compare the data corpus of an organization to a human body, the go-to analogy would be the nervous system. It’s almost too easy; with small signals generated and detected from the “bottom-up,” the brain interprets the aggregate of these tiny influences and creates “top-down” executive responses that amalgamate all the various inputs and determine the most appropriate course of action given the situation.
When your hand feels a pinprick, peripheral nerves in your fingers shoot electrical signals toward the central nervous system and up to the brain via the spinal cord. Similarly, when an employee performs a knowledge-related task at work -- such as complete a sale, submit a report, or even receive discipline -- some sort of data is created and sent via electrical signals to the IT center. This data could be structured, such as in your ERP system, or unstructured in the form of emails, files, collaborative content, etc. As in the human body, these signals are sent and received at near-instantaneous speeds. But until recently, the analogy ends there for unstructured data types.
The difference in this analogy is that the human body has a way to interpret these signals, react accordingly, store the memory, and recall it when needed. Until recently, that capacity has been lacking in the business sense, especially for notoriously messy unstructured data.
Y’all know by now that I love using anecdotal stories to illustrate governance principles. So like it or not, here comes another. The first time I ate a Jalapeno was so traumatic that I feel compelled to bring it up… twenty-something years after the fact. As soon as my teeth cracked the pepper, the capsaicin insidiously permeated my taste buds and sent electrical signals through my spine that my brain interpreted as a burning sensation unlike any other. My reaction was to evacuate the contents of my mouth onto the floor and immediately tear up and get the sniffles, trying to flush out the noxious compound. Since that moment, I have refrained from ingesting another jalapeno because I can clearly recall the negative first encounter. In this way, my nervous system has provided my brain with data that will help keep me safe moving forward. It provides an indelible reference that incorporates those one-time adverse experiences, and guides my ongoing choices in selecting food. Rather than having to experience the same events over and over again, that one occasion is used as a heuristic: a template for being fully aware of the distress that one innocuous-looking little green vegetable can unleash upon my unwitting body. The human brain, by nature, is designed to learn.
Today, very few companies are able to fully grasp these small signals that make up the aggregate digital “knowledge” of a corporation. There often isn’t much “learning” or deriving long-term meaning from the small digital bits that are transmitted on a day to day basis. The content of any given message is only meaningful to the end-user who reads it. One of the holy grails in our field is the ability to make sense of the information that is sent throughout an organization. In other words, we are trying to give our organization a brain. To give it the power to merge and analyze a large variety of signals and data points, allowing for contextual “big picture” decisions to be made.
Increasingly, this can be done with the relatively amorphous unstructured data, similar to how structured data has been routinely analyzed for years thanks to BI systems. But two obstacles stand in the way for unstructured content. First, how can we understand our data if we can’t even govern it? Your brain operates as a librarian, organizing information based on frequency and importance. We are one step ahead of ourselves already. Information silos make holistic governance impossible, so logically a company cannot begin to make sense of this data until it is silo-free. The second obstacle is the knowledge itself. Where in an organization can we find someone who knows how to classify data based on importance? Where can we find someone with the technical expertise to secure and own this information? Is anyone here an expert in our employees and how their jobs function within the organization? Can anyone tell us what kinds of information can be a liability in court? And finally, who can keep the above people from tearing each other’s heads off?
If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you could think of the right person for all of these questions. These are the records managers, IT staff, HR departments, legal team, and executive leaders, respectively. We are sitting on a mountain of unstructured gold. Organizations resemble organisms. Different organs with different functions come together to form an entity that is greater than the sum of its parts. Both human sensory perception and enterprise data creation are just a vast array of scattered electrical signals and inputs. The brain gives you a way to unite these parts and take actions that affect your wellbeing, as well as the environment in which you exist.
As businesses without developed brains, we are primitive beings without higher-level “executive” control. Those who have taken steps toward and attained information governance are the only ones ready to walk upright and see the world with evolved cognizance.