Rules, People, and Information Asset Management


By Edan Puritt

4, 7, 15, 21, 24, 29, 36 These are the winning numbers to next week’s lottery. And I know this by simply looking into my crystal ball. The ability to look into the future is great! You look skeptical. Do you doubt that I either have these powers or am in the possession of some mystical artifact? Why would you doubt me? crystal-ballHundreds of thousands of companies believe that all of their employees and contractors are in possession of some such similar device. They believe that each person has the ability to look one day, one week, one year, or ten years into the future and inherently understand how each and every piece of information will be used and needed.

Lottery Approach to Information Asset Management

How else could we explain all these companies who just leave it to the best intentions and intuition of their staff to manage the distribution and lifecycle of their information assets? Quite simply, if this approach worked, every week, every person would correctly select the winning lottery ticket. bingoBeyond all of us not winning the lottery every week, all of us do not know the future of our information assets either. Here’s the challenge: most organizations do not have rules about how their assets are to be managed, and worse, they fight tooth and nail to resist the introduction of those rules. It’s really quite simple, we need rules and we need to understand what the consequences of compliance, and non-compliance are for following, or not following, those rules. Even if the rules make perfect sense, they should be known.

Rules and General Asset Management

Consider some asset examples:files

  1. You don’t buy a car every time you can’t remember where you left it. Do you really need a rule to remind you not to buy a car?
  2. What about buying a pen every time you need one rather than using one that you already have?
  3. Recall living with a roommate?  I do. I knew exactly what I thought about what belonged to whom in the refrigerator.

We have rules for how we create, use, dispose of, and most certainly share, almost all of our assets. That we need rules for our information assets shouldn’t come as a surprise. That said, I am almost always astounded by the resistance to the introduction of those rules. Maybe that’s where the real problem is? Not in having rules, but in how they are introduced.

Streetcar Splat of Information Management aka e-Discovery

transitSo, you don’t buy tickets. Let’s forget the lottery metaphor. Instead, let’s assume that we can look into the future so we all know when and where the cars or streetcars are coming from. Do you imagine you’ll feel safe crossing the street without looking both ways? Regrettably, this analogy is better suited as many organizations don’t bother looking both ways until they have been hit by the proverbial streetcar. Even more unfortunate, that streetcar usually takes the form—inside the organization—of embarrassing some senior manager or executive. In the end, all too often, the appropriate management of information assets is tainted by the political imperative to cover someone’s butt rather than the imperative to use expensive assets responsibly. Admittedly, this is more often the case in the public sector than the private sector where accountability is usually only measured in opportunities for advancement. Still, in the private sector, where that errant document or email can mean the difference in a legal case, or have a direct impact on stock value, accountability is swift and sure. And in the butt covering scenario, embarrassment necessitates the creation imperative to delete what we can, and scurry to find the relevant rules. Frequently, the responsibility for the development of information management rules falls under the purview of records managers.

Rules: Needed to Govern Information Asset Management

Record managers: the very name elicits yawns. They, (I actually consider myself one too), so WE,  are the group largely responsible for the maintenance of corporate documents that no longer have business value, but must be kept to demonstrate compliance with one or usually many regulations. That really is one of the information handling anomalies in most organizations. Records managers usually understand IM rules the best. Why? Because by and large, most organizations have adopted and enforce rules for the management of their information assets that no longer have business value, but must be kept for compliance purposes. But what about the assets that are still in play today? Why so few rules? It’s not sufficient to have rules, but it really is necessary.

Rules ≠ Governance

spiralHaving rules does not mean we have governance. I apologize in advance if what follows looks like a circle. I’m actually trying to describe a spiral, but in the absence of the third dimension, I may not get it right. Imagine the scenario where, after much stakeholder engagement, consultations with subject matter experts, and time, we set the speed limit on a given stretch of highway at 100. The first question is easy: what is the unit? Is this 100 kilometres, or 100 miles per hour? Tip #1: Use the existing measurement standard, assuming there is one. Quickly, things become less clear. What happens if we have set a limit, but don’t post it?  How would people know the limit? And in the absence of that knowledge, what speed would they drive? Tip #2: Common sense is, as you might have noticed, not particularly common nor universal. Soon we would discover that even posting all the rules does not mean governance. What if we never saw a police officer on that stretch of highway? How long until the lack of enforcement had an effect on compliance? Rules require enforcement. And linked to that, what would happen if the police did give out tickets, but there was no fine or consequence for non-compliance? Tip #3: Rules with enforcement but no consequences are of limited value. Now we’re getting closer to the real difference between rules and governance.

Information Management without Governance: Anarchy or Routinized Chaos?

Alright, so we have reached the point where those curves would kiss, but for that third dimension. The lack of governance is actually only a perceived lack of governance. You know, Mom and Dad are away for the weekend so the kids think they can have a party. Ultimately, there really is no such thing as a lack of governance. Even anarchy is a form of governance, because people develop and follow routines based on past experiences and on collective approaches.  Besides, every organization has some governance. coffee-makerTip #4: Search for an existing rule or some maxims as you prepare your information asset management governance guidelines. The particular process for doing an action or handling an information asset may not be documented but what would happen if you decided to walk the coffee maker or a chair, or a large fern, out the front door? Or, walk any of those items, in the front door? Find those rules, and then think of assets as anything of value that your organization has paid for, including our wages. Once you have found, or if necessary, documented the relevant governance process for your business activity, share that process. policyTip #5: Do not reinvent the wheel—look for similar governance structures in your organization and then update the mandate to include information assets. Oh, and where do you start if there is no obvious governance document? Look to the handling of other processes. All organizations have existing governance processes. Your organization’s rules and policies about general assets is a good starting point. Work from that basis and extend that governance system to cover your information assets TOO! Tip #6: Rules, governance, enforcement, and consequences are meant to assist, protect, and facilitate business. It really is that simple. No crystal ball needed, unlikely we’ll win the lottery, and we really should look both ways before crossing the street.

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