The Corporate Cigar Box: What you don’t keep can help you

Seven steps to start ridding your company of unnecessary data.

This story is the second part in a two-part series on record retention.

In my last article, I broke the bad news that spending enormous amounts of money to store massive amounts of data is not the best idea given that most of that data is completely unneeded. There is good news, however. Given that so much corporate data is unnecessary, remediating that data is generally a positive ROI proposition. When you check on how much money your company spends on storage (online, archival, backup tapes, paper), prepare to be surprised. The cost of eliminating a substantial portion of that unneeded information is generally a fraction of the cost of keeping it—particularly when considered over time.

So, how do you get there? Unfortunately, this is a tremendous challenge and there are no easy answers. But there are some steps that every company can take to begin wrestling with the problem:

  1. Start now. Many organizations are paralyzed by the size and scope of the challenge, and end up doing nothing. It is critical to begin to address the problem as every industry study suggests that it will simply continue to grow at an exponential rate.
  2. Elevate the discussion. Data remediation involves virtually every constituency in the business, from legal to IT, and records management to operations. Success will depend on executive-level support and oversight from every quarter.
  3. Take records management seriously. Responsibility for records management should be moved out of tax or facilities, where it is often located, to a C-level position with appropriate support staff. The impact that effective records and information management can have on expense and risk reduction is incredible, but you don’t have to start from scratch. Employ professionals who understand the discipline and its application to information systems.
  4. Know what you need to keep. A critical first step in remediating unwanted data is in understanding current preservation obligations. This means cataloging all of the legal holds as well as all the regulatory and business retention requirements that are applicable to your company. You must also consider whether there is a legitimate business reason to preserve records longer than required by regulation. Sometimes this information already exists in the legal and compliance departments but, if you don’t know what you are supposed to keep, you can’t know what you can safely dispose of.
  5. Target low-risk, high-reward applications. Chances are there are a number of information stores that constitute low-hanging fruit for a remediation project, including legacy systems (data stores that are no longer in active use), backup tapes and even boxes of paper sitting in off-site storage. A great place to start is enforcing existing retention obligations against paper records. Raise the bar for requesting an extension of the retention period. Too often destruction notices are routinely denied without real justification. With respect to legacy data and backup tapes, leverage emerging technologies that greatly simplify and reduce the cost of identifying information that can safely be destroyed. For example, Index Engines can help your company to index all of the information on a backup tape, allowing you to search the content and metadata of all of the files on the tape without having to restore the tape. The reduction in time and cost can be dramatic. Similar technologies can be used with legacy and even active data stores to identify unneeded information at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time that was required even a few years ago. Every company has easy-to-target repositories of data, particularly now that we’re beginning to overcome the technological limitations on data management. One or two quick wins will give your program substantial momentum.
  6. Develop and instill an information management compliance culture. This requires a potentially significant change in mindset for most employees, but it will be critical to future success. Begin by educating employees on the significant costs associated with maintaining enormous volumes of unnecessary information. Update record retention policies and schedules, and train your employees on them. Begin communicating the need for individual responsibility for information management. As good as the technology is becoming, in the near term at least, there will continue to be a substantial need for human involvement in the process, so start educating people now.
  7. Think creatively about retention. When all of our records were paper, we organized them in manila folders, the folders went into boxes and the boxes onto shelves. It was not unusual for companies to have hundreds, even thousands of records classifications. Today, however, with mixed-use data repositories such as Microsoft SharePoint and e-mail archives, the traditionally complex records classifications become unmanageable. It will be necessary, then, to think creatively about reducing the number of record classes and leveraging technology to facilitate the retention process. This is where your multi-disciplinary team of records management and IT professionals will shine.

Managing information in modern corporate environments is difficult, complex work. Taking it seriously, however, can reduce risk and significant amounts of money. At home, it may be fine to keep your old cigar box but, at work, it’s time to clean house.

Contributing Author

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Dennis Kiker

Dennis Kiker is a partner at LeClairRyan in Richmond, Va. He works with corporations and government agencies to facilitate and improve information management and discovery response...

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