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Explaining What Information Governance Is

Information governance is a set of words thrown around as if they have some deep, profound, and universal meaning. However, the truth is that there isn’t a clean and globally accepted definition to what information governance is – and is not. As a result, professionals in many disciplines are confused as to what it is, why they care about it, and how to implement it.

The Principle

Behind information governance is a single principle. It’s a single guiding strategy that drives why everyone should care. The principle is to maximize the value of information in an organization. While this is a seemingly short and straightforward principle, the multiple ways it’s interpreted creates confusion about what information governance is. As a principle, it defines what – not how nor why. The why is self-explanatory. Getting value both personally and organizationally is what we all want.

What is Information?

The tricky part about information governance – and its relationship to both data governance and knowledge management – is the line between what we call data, what we call information, and what we’d call knowledge.

There are varying definitions of the distinction between data and information about the degree of added meaning. However, as this is context dependent, it makes little sense to entertain this as a part of the definition. Most folks have settled for an imprecise but acceptable answer that data exists in rows and columns. It’s structured. Unstructured data is called information. This division is reasonable and allows us to confine our efforts to improve utilization to things outside of the rows and columns of the core transactional system.

The other side of the continuum is knowledge and wisdom. While knowledge has some useful criteria, they’re not perfect either. Knowledge is often divided by the differences between explicit and tacit information. Explicit information can be written down and is contextless. Tacit information, on the other hand, resists being translated into explicit knowledge, which is written down and captured. The conversion between tacit and explicit is fraught with challenges, and some insist that tacit knowledge can never be removed from its context and made fully explicit.

While knowledge managers struggle with the difference between connecting people to get to knowledge versus connecting people with the explicit knowledge, we can constrain the principles of information governance to that knowledge which knowledge management would consider explicit. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to work with – it’s just easier than tacit.

To Steer

The other aspect to address is the idea of governance. In many organizations, governance committees control and prescribe instead of collaborate and suggest. Instead of helping people make the best decisions, they respond by stopping projects and blocking things that maybe should have never been started in the first place. However, the problem is that this isn’t what governance is supposed to be about. Governance is supposed to be steering – like the rudder of a ship.

Implemented as a back-end enforcement process – which is the way many governance programs are implemented – diverges from the original intent of the word and the best use of governance. To be fair, information governance includes regulatory compliance and some things where the guidance is quite rigid and does need to be enforced. This should be the last resort reserved for things that are unable to be addressed with guidance.

The Conflict

There is, in information governance, a fundamental conflict. The conflict is between retaining information too long and thereby exposing the organization to additional risk of disclosure and discarding information too soon, thereby depriving the organization of the value of the information. The key to good information governance lies in identifying which information must be retained and which information should be disposed of.

Regulations often require that information be retained for a minimum amount of time, thereby forming the lower bounds of how long the information must be maintained. Other regulations related to individual privacy focus on the maximum timeframe that information may be held by an organization. In between these two boundaries, organizations are free to decide what their retention schedule is.

The limitation is that organizations are required to maintain retention policies that are defensible. This means it’s well understood and consistently applied. While this seems like an obvious thing, courts don’t want to see a large amount of information disposed of immediately before they order the disclosure of that information to opposing council in a case.

The Sorting

Retention of important information is only the tip of the iceberg, but it surfaces the need to be able to meaningfully classify information. Different kinds of information have different value over time. To be able to keep and dispose of information properly, it must be categorized appropriately. The problem is substantially harder than it may at first appear. It starts with the ability to identify the major areas of information that you have in the organization.

This process is easy enough for transactional type data but gets more complicated when you wander into the world of things that are done rarely – or even once. It’s not feasible to capture every one-off thing that the organization has ever done, yet to build proper categories, this is exactly the kind of information that’s needed.

Humans are hard-wired to categorize things. That’s why we have such a hard time avoiding stereotypes – it’s how we’re made. Even with the innate ability to categorize and group things, we don’t always pick the right groups at first. We create too many categories in one area and not enough in others. Even the famed Dewey Decimal System reserved nine of ten spots for variants of Christianity, leaving only one category for all other religions. Dewey’s beliefs and experience caused him to bias his system toward Christianity at the expense of other religions.

The categorization process often reflects our own quirky experiences rather than an absolute best way to do things. As a result, the best categorization schemes are ones that reflect the unique way the organization views the world.

Finally, assigning items to categories can be challenging, as there may be no clear option that relates to the item the person is trying to store – or retrieve. It seems odd, but all too often, users store things in places in the system that were never intended for that kind of information.

The Value

To get value from information, it must have been retained, and it must be findable. Findability can be accomplished through navigation to the valuable information or through using the search system. Both of these, however, require that the categories are set up correctly and, in the case of search, correct metadata has been applied. Getting users to enter the correct and complete metadata about the things they’re doing is hard. This is in part due to the barriers of reminding them to provide the information and in part due to the additional burden it places on them.

To get to the value of information governance, we must find ways to motivate all users to file things properly and enter the metadata that will make the item findable again when it’s needed. That’s why information architecture is a keystone skill for information governance and it’s one that few people are taught.

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