Big data...unstructured data…explosive data growth…information overload…compliance with regulations. If you listen to the hype about corporate information, you may never sleep soundly again. Guess what?! It doesn’t have to be complicated or costly to get control of your company’s structured and unstructured information.

The current surge of attention businesses are giving to unstructured data stems from the sinking feeling we have that something important is out of control. We think we know what we have until we actually reach for something specific only to discover we can’t place our fingers on the piece of information we need. Panic ensues as we begin to realize that we only sort-of know where our unstructured information is, but we don’t know exactly what we have or how to get to it.

Unstructured data essentials requires a common understanding of two types of unstructured data, an explanation of why data management matters, and a review of a technology you may already be using that can help you securely manage and control what you have. Don’t panic! You can control your unstructured data without massive investments or huge change initiatives for your business.

What is Unstructured Data?

Unstructured data can be sorted into two types: machine-generated data like COLD/ERM/print stream data, and human-generated content like email messages. Both types of data contain valuable information, but they are stored in largely inaccessible formats—hence the label “unstructured.”

1. Machine-generated Data:  Many organizations depend on large mainframes and other high-volume solutions to crunch through mountains of data for invoicing, human resources, or inventory management. These systems spit out COLD/ERM/print stream data, which doesn’t play nicely with enterprise efforts to control information. In the past, this information was frequently printed on reams of green bar paper. Today it still sits in mainframe computers, where it is hard to sort, search, correlate, and find the critical pieces of data needed to make strategic decisions.

2. Human-generated Content:  Humans also create unstructured data in the form of email and instant messages. The use of email continues to grow. In fact, the average office worker today receives more than 120 email messages per day (source: Radicati Group), yet a 2014 research survey indicates that as many as 55% of companies do not have formal email management policies in place (source: AIIM). This lackadaisical approach makes it difficult to locate information when it’s needed, and 96% of employees believe their company’s email policies place the organization at legal risk (source: Processor). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) require all organizations involved in legal action in a US District or federal court to be able to provide email messages when subpoenaed. Many other compliance initiatives have designated email messages as business records that require management and control.

Why Does Unstructured Data Management Matter?

The real challenge presented by unstructured data is the difficulty of understanding exactly what content we have, sorting to what is valuable, and securely managing information that requires retrieval and protection. And, the problem keeps growing. IDC analysts Turner, Gantz, Reinsel, and Minton explain that there are now as many bits of digital information as there are stars in the universe. The digital universe is growing at a rate of 40% per year, and by 2020, it will reach 44 zettabytes in size. That’s 44 trillion gigabytes!

Is your business ready to manage 40% more information next year than you have today? How about the year after that? “…in the long run, excesses of technology mean that the comparative advantage shifts from those with information glut to those with ordered knowledge, from those who can process vast amounts of blab to those who can explain what is worth knowing and why.”

ECM Can Help!

Don’t overthink your unstructured data strategy! Despite how complicated it can sound, management of this information may be easier than you think. Many organizations get caught up in worrying about unstructured data policies, practices, and procedures, but the fact that the data is unstructured doesn’t necessarily require different management or compliance policies than those you already have in place for structured data like documents and electronic files.

In fact, the same Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system you’re using for structured data may enable management and protection of unstructured data as well. Look for an ECM system that includes a component to process print stream data into easy-to-read electronic reports (often called report management), and one that can also sort, manage and protect email messages.

So, unstructured data can be created by machines or humans, but it doesn’t have to lurk, out-of-control in the shadows of your organization. Roll email and print stream information into your current ECM system to really leverage the value from your existing investment. You’ll rest assured because you can search for, retrieve and use the specific information you want right when it’s most needed.

HK Bain is CEO of Digitech Systems, which specializes in Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions.


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