The world is producing data at an unprecedented rate. IDC predicts that from 2005 to 2020, the digital universe will grow by a factor of 300, from 130 exabytes to 40,000 exabytes, or 40 trillion gigabytes. While all this data can help companies better target customers, drive sales and identify top talent, too much information can degrade the effectiveness of data-driven processes and impede employee productivity.
Fortunately, there are steps HR leaders can take to control the data deluge facing so many companies.
Just ask Amber Simonsen. Simonsen has spent the better part of her career as a consultant and senior project manager convincing companies of the “legal risks and risks to co-workers” of being a data pack rat. She offers these tips for making data hoarding a thing of the past.
1. Whittle down your data.
According to Simonsen, too much data can actually stand in the way of in-depth analytics.
“You get to a point where you have to ask yourself what you plan to produce with the data,” says Simonsen. “We’re all so data-hungry that sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomach. Organizations have a ton of data – there’s no end in sight – but is data from five years ago really going to provide you with anything valuable?”
Simonsen suggests that deleting age-old data (10 years old or more) from an analytics system can help algorithms perform better and produce more accurate results that haven’t been biased by a system’s historical data.
2. Establish and enforce data policies.
Meaningless data stored on workers’ personal drives is the bane of any HR professional’s existence, especially when the goal is to purge unnecessary information. Incomplete, preliminary or draft documents that are stored in employees’ email inboxes or document folders can add up over time, “preventing employees from sharing important digital resources and causing co-workers to lose track of versions of documents which can be really frustrating,” warns Simonsen.
More than simply frustrating, data hoarding can also impact employee productivity. “If you can’t find the latest version of a document because it’s living on someone’s personal drive, you’re going to wind up working on an older version. That’s such a waste of time, all because someone wants to maintain control or doesn’t trust the system to put a file on SharePoint.”
Another data hoarding landmine is legal liability. “You don’t know what’s sitting on personal drives and you don’t know what’s in an email yet you’re held responsible for it as an organization,” warns Simonsen. For example, a company may hand over all the information it believes it has in response to an e-discovery request, not realizing there’s more to be had on an employee’s personal drive.
So how can HR help reduce duplicate documents and minimize the risk of legal liabilities? Encouraging the use of collaborative software tools such as Microsoft SharePoint or custom wikis can prevent employees from storing dozens of document versions on their personal computers. What’s more, a BYOD (bring your own device) policy can ensure workers only store sensitive data on corporate-issued smartphones and other mobile devices.
3. Lead efforts to educate employees about data hoarding risks.
Traditionally, HR has taken a backseat to IT when it comes to educating employees on the perils of data hoarding. But that’s a huge mistake, according to Simonsen.
“HR can play a critical role in helping people understand what data truly is valuable, the cost to maintain documents and the risks to the organization,” she says. “When an IT department is involved, it’s a much less warm-and-fuzzy process. Their approach is to say, ‘We’re going to take your files and we’re going to put them here.’ For some employees, it feels as if they’re being violated.”
HR, however, can take a much more people-friendly than data-centric approach by educating employees on the dangers and costs of storing too much data, as well as establishing benchmarks on how long workers should archive certain types of data.
Other Rules of Thumb
So how much is too much data? According to survey results from the Compliance, Governance and Oversight Council, a consortium of 2,300 legal and IT professions, organizations on average need to archive about 2 to 3 percent of their data for legal responsibilities, 5 to 10 percent to meet regulatory requirements, and 25 percent for business analysis and insights.
While it’s safe to say that most companies overshoot these standards, some experts argue that there is a time and a place for data hoarding. In a blog posting entitled, “The Case for Data Hoarding,” Phil Simon, author of Too Big to Ignore: The Business Case for Big Data, argues that data hoarding makes sense under two conditions: 1. If an organization is using data tools like Hadoop and NoSQL; and 2. If a company actually does something valuable with its data.
Simon even goes so far as to suggest that yesteryear’s arguments against data hoarding, such as the high cost of storage, no longer apply in this era of new storage technologies. Nevertheless, for companies that fail to purge their petabytes, even every now and then, they’re likely to discover that you can have too much of a good thing.
Cindy Waxer, a contributing editor who covers workforce analytics and other topics for Data Informed, is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a contributor to publications including The Economist and MIT Technology Review. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Cwaxer.
Home page photo of papers by Flickr user grace_kat, used under a Creative Commons license.