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ECM - Ease of Storage is the New Challenge

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group
Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

Before the Internet, before the thick encyclopedia, dusty library stacks, or even sheepskin scrolls stored in caves, there was unstructured data. Methods like notches on sticks, scratches on stones, and knots in strings were used, in addition to oral traditions of record-keeping. Our unstructured data is now shared through primarily the printed word and image, though much more often virtual than physical.

Our technique has become more refined, but is there a meaningful difference between how this data was stored in the past versus now? Our ancestors, those who were affluent or powerful enough to not spend all their time seeking food and shelter, were limited by the time and knowledge needed to record their information in a durable manner. It took experience and training to be able to make and decipher the marks, pictographs or lettering. It took skills and knowledge to create the tools to do this, and to pass them on to the next generation.

The ability to increase knowledge requires the facility to store it for others to build upon. It is perhaps not a coincidence that along with our knowledge explosion of the last 400+ years, our ability to store (and share) that knowledge has also vastly increased. This is automation in a very pure sense.

  ​The new problem we face is not about how much we can store but rather the value and utility of what we do store 

Today we have industrialized the knowledge storage and transfer process, making it a commodity limited only by our appetite for speed and volume. Storage is cheap, systems are fast, so why is there a concern?

While Moore’s Law is about the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, it applies to a group of related technologies, such as processor speed and the amount of information that can be stored. Because storage is fast and cheap, we assume adding more storage is the solution. That is like saying more ambulances will reduce traffic accidents or that a bigger freezer will make the ice cream taste better. The new problem we face is not about how much we can store but rather the value and utility of what we do store.

The criteria for determining if a document or image should not be stored might be endless, but there are five key principles to consider: 1) Avoid duplication, 2) Delete outdated versions, 3) Only retain originals for a set amount of time, 4) Eliminate what is not utilized, and 5) Store in a common lake rather than individual ponds.

Avoid duplication. Set up policies and procedures that reduce staff saving documents in multiple locations. People tend to store in an individual location first, then later, if at all, in a group shared location. If the document or image was received via email (which is almost always the case) then it is also being stored on the mail server for some period of time. Without rigorous practices in place, this will lead to massive amounts of duplication, resulting in higher storage costs but also greater difficulty to manage the files and practice effective collaboration.

Delete outdated versions. When creating content, the process usually involves multiple versions which generally are not needed once the final version is complete. Other than very limited cases, there is no value in these interim versions. A guideline should be in place to ensure that the interim versions are not retained.

Only retain originals for a set amount of time. Every company should have a document retention policy. It is primarily designed to protect a company in the legal discovery process, but it also helps reduce document volume. We all have an office packrat. That hoarder who cannot, will not, ever throw away or delete a document. They live in constant fear that the one document they throw away will be exactly the one they need the next day. The fact is they are sometimes right. But the bigger fact is that even if right in the specific, in general, it is better to have a strict retention policy for the good of the organization.

Eliminate what is not utilized. While your organization will require you to keep certain kinds of documents for the retention period, there is still likely to be a large number of working documents and other support materials that are not necessary to keep. These documents or images may cease to have value upon creation of their replacement or abandonment of the approach. You will need to be disciplined in deleting these, and your organization will need clear policies in place to support this.

Store in a common lake rather than individual ponds. While never losing sight of security and privacy, it is better to keep your unstructured data together rather than seeing it disbursed in multiple, often nearly untrackable, locations. This principle becomes an enabler as you try to achieve the first four principles.

At the enterprise level, there is a fine line between allowing your users the freedom to manage their own work, and the structure needed to ensure the volume of unnecessary documents and images remains under control. Enterprise content management (ECM) is the next frontier of business operational efficiency, and failure to address this will result in runaway costs and the inability to find the documents and images needed for collaboration and successful conduct of business.

Take the suggested principles to heart and consider the hard decisions necessary within your organization needed to support this, and both you and your organization will benefit.

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