Just hearing the words "dark data" can be enough for managers in the outsourcing industry to feel a little uneasy - but despite its rather menacing name there has never been a better time to tackle the phenomenon head on.
When you think of the recent explosion in data it’s hardly surprising that businesses worry about how dark data - defined as "information assets that organisations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purposes" - will affect them in future. So why are so few doing anything about it?
Rather than shying away from the challenges ahead the big questions we need to be asking are: how do you get dark data under control? And how can you derive benefit from it?
The threats provided by an explosion in data are obvious; businesses which don’t know what information they have or how to find it are opening themselves up to the possibility of a data breach, and in danger of falling foul of data protection regulation as it continues to evolve.
For those in the outsourcing industry the problem is particularly acute, not least because retaining control and keeping track of data created is even more complicated when services are outsourced.
Outsourcing is pretty much available at any part of the value chain these days, whether manufacturing, logistics, or maintenance - which all have a physical element - or services such as IT, call centres, accounting and payroll services. And one thing these have in common is they increasingly produce data – not just as the desired output but also in the form excess data generated in the background.
We’re all aware of the data created by draft documents, copies and emails – but many processes, devices, servers, buildings and even vehicles produce data too.
Buildings, for instance, are increasingly becoming smart or intelligent which means they produce a lot of data. And as the Internet of Things takes hold there will be even more created as everyday objects in the workplace gain network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data. This will become an increasingly serious issue for the outsourcing industry, both in terms of how much it costs to store, how accessible it is and the inherent risks it contains.
A typical IT department will concentrate its resources on storing data for an organisation. But the best IT teams work closely with the business to understand what data could have value or pose a risk.
Here, then, are some pointers for those in the outsourcing industry on how to store less dark data and how to find the value in what is kept; ten top tips to prevent dark data accumulating – and then to derive benefit from it.
1. Having a strong and global information governance system in place is vital. As supply chains grow the temptation can be to leave it all to IT – but that’s when businesses begin to lose control of their data. Have an information governance programme in place supported by the most senior management levels and practiced every day.
2. A good first step for a business is to understand what they want to achieve with the data and who it actually belongs to. If no one analyses the data it can simply accumulate and remain unused.
3. Don’t accept that because data storage is cheap everything can be kept. Charge cost centres for storage. If it’s free, the data addiction will only grow and there is little incentive to reduce it.
4. Develop policies and continuous training for all staff about managing data (including data on local drives, laptops, shared drives, removable devices and mobile devices).
5. Understand which regulations require what data to be kept for how long. Don’t keep it longer than necessary unless clear benefit can be derived from it.
6. Don’t believe all data in enough volume is “Big Data” and therefore has value. Much of it will not be useful in big data projects, especially as it’s often unstructured and in various formats.
7. The new EU General Data Protection Regulation, which begins in May 2018, will give new rights to EU citizens to ask for personal information about them to be deleted or edited. This could pose a problem for outsourcing companies and the fines – up to 4% of global turnover – are huge if anything goes wrong. As data is spread across a range of outsourced services it will be imperative to manage the information, with systems and processes in place to accurately manage and control the data.
8. Use File Level Analysis software, to analyse the content of data rather than just its creation and expiry date. It can help a business understand information content, type, size and location.
9. Map data sources generated by internal systems or received from external sources – this is about documenting ‘where’ and ‘why’ the data lives and how it was derived.
10. Talk and communicate with people because not everything will be officially documented or known about. Work-arounds and short-term fixes often become routine in the business place, so make people aware of the impact of not being able to manage everyone’s data effectively - it affects everyone.
Only after taking these steps can everyone in the outsourcing industry begin to find, understand and derive benefit from data they previously looked on as nothing more than an expensive waste product – and reduce costs and risks by storing less in the first place. Shining a light on dark data is just the start – but it’s a very good start.