Tackling the data deluge

Executives receive an average 7 megabytes of e-mail data daily, fuelling corporate storage systems to their point they now double every year. Is there a way out of the data jail?
Written by Mark Hollands, Contributor

Are you sitting in data jail -- trapped in a world of e-mail demands from an impatient head office or needless missives from staff intent on bombarding you with information so they can convince themselves they have covered their backs?
Data jail is an increasingly unpopular yet populous destination for executives whose inboxes are inundated with the valuable and the worthless -- with no way of telling which is which.
Executives receive an average 7 megabytes of e-mail data every day, fuelling the corporate storage systems to their point where they now double every year, according to US-based Osterman Research.
For those suffering data overload, the bad news is the situation will not improve. Leading analyst firm IDC predicts daily e-mail numbers will increase from 2.6 trillion to 9.2 trillion within two years.
“We have just seen the first wave,” says Peter Williams, chief executive of Australia’s largest Web development company, The Eclipse Group. “The arrival of ubiquitous high-speed wireless broadband networks and 3G phones will make today’s e-mail volumes appear small indeed.”
At least a third of e-mail is occupational spam, according to Tony Hughes, local boss of specialist e-mail software vendor, Hummingbird. Garbage in the inbox, like e-Christmas cards and notes announcing a lady in reception selling books, is weighing down networks.
John Duckett, general manager for IT at law firm Phillips Fox, confirms Hughes’s assertion, saying that of 13,000 e-mails received externally each day, an average 3500 are caught in his anti-spam net.
Delete mail, go to jail
Yet companies are reluctant to press the “delete” button for fear of breaching new corporate regulations aimed at stopping horror episodes such as the HIH and OneTel collapses, which were in large part due to a lack of corporate accountability and governance.
The Corporations Law Economic Reform Policy -- Australia’s toned-down version of the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act -- has chief executives demanding every scrap of data is kept just in case something bad happens and an auditor from the Australian Security and Investments Commission (ASIC) takes the lift up to their office.
“The Australian legislation is a more principled approach than the prescriptive stand taken in America,” says Hughes. “However, there remains an obligation to not just report the financial figures accurately but to show the substance behind those figures. E-mail threads discussing ways in which fiscal results should be reported would be covered by the legislation.” This means almost all corporate e-mails are now captured and stored because this is the medium where so much management and decision-making is conducted. IT research specialist Gartner claims 35 percent of any large company’s “know-how” resides on e-mail.
Gartner recommends a strong regime of e-mail archiving with metadata and taxonomy protocols to allow users to find information quickly using a search engine. Gartner research director John Roberts says most clients groan at the lack of information management and the dominance of e-mail inside their own organisation. “Changing the situation is more about corporate culture than technology,” he observes.
“Disabling the ‘reply to all’ button would be a good start in my book. Staff should also be discouraged from reporting everything they do, or explaining the rationale for every decision, to their bosses. Management is overloaded with workers behaving like this. Instead, peers in middle management should be encourage set up specific distribution lists, share information and collaborate in real-time.”
No end of data
Organisations are not just bombarded by e-mail, of course. They also gather mind-boggling amounts of data from a proliferation of management systems that look after enterprise resources, the supply chain, and customer relationships.
We are capturing so much data today that researchers from the University of California say that by the end of 2002 we had recorded and held twice as much business information as we possessed in 1999 -- a staggering finding.
Researchers Peter Lyman and Hal Varian, who are attached to the university’s Berkley School of Information Management, estimate 800 megabytes of information were stored for every human in 2002. In that year, they say we generated the equivalent of 500,000 libraries the size of America’s Library of Congress. More than 90 percent of all this data was stored in digital format, rather than as paper or celluloid records.
The challenge is to swim rather than drown in this data. Which is easier said than done. Commentators say the solution lies in a combination of changing corporate behaviour, as well as finding the right software to help organise the data so that it can be found.
Get organised, save money
A number of useful technology alternatives exist in the market to handle so-called structured data -- the information that comes from systems such as CRM (customer relationship management). The real problem is handling unstructured data, such as e-mails, and creating an environment in which staff can collaborate and find information and use it with the minimum fuss.
Mike Kearney, of content management specialist Vignette, says that while technical solutions exists, management would do worse than to instill financial incentives for staff to change behaviour, reducing e-mail traffic and using information that already exists on in-house systems. “This would help reduce the number of duplicate spreadsheets and databases and prevent people thinking they need to invent the wheel all the time,” he says.
Significant savings can be made if you get the equation right. One of Australia’s largest four banks has added nearly $7 million to its bottom line by cutting inefficiency from the way it handles contractor invoices and recruitment.
The bank, which does not want to be named for fear it will lose a competitive advantage over the others, has been using Web-based software designed by recruitment agency Drake International.
Drake’s chairman for Australia, Ron Urwin, says “these are the bank’s own figures and the savings have nothing to do with the calibre of selection”
“Some $4 million of efficiency came from integrating contracts into one system, making the bank’s recruitment system easier to manage. Another $2.6 million came from simplifying the invoicing process. Before the bank adopted the web-based solution, its HR staff were swamped with files and information.”
This is not a unique experience for Australian workers, according to Eclipse’s Peter Williams. “We are the late majority when it comes to data management,” he says. “If there is not an obvious reason to spend the money, then local companies don’t spend it.
“Now they are all pulling out their hair in frustration simply because they have not invested the money necessary to handle massive amounts of data.”
Portals and intranets
Williams says a commitment to collaboration and a strategy based around the creation of a decent portal or intranet is essential to help ease their info-glut. He regales a tale of how his parent company, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, became obsessed with avoiding conflicts of interest in the aftermath of the Andersen auditing and accounting controversy at Enron.
“Deloittes has 130,000 staff and there were hundreds of e-mails exchanged every day from partners seeking to establish if taking on a contract in one part of the world would create a conflict of interest somewhere else,” Williams recalls. “It was a nightmare. There was so much noise that most colleagues deleted the messages on sight.”
His solution was to build a component for the intranet that gathered together all these queries and then released a weekly bulletin. “It became a key barometer of activity and reduced the e-mails in the organisation by 80 percent,” he adds. It was one reason why Deloittes intranet was voted among the world’s top 10 by an American computer magazine.
Gartner is another example of harnessing the power of collaboration. It runs a proprietary Web-based system called GRADS that is used by its 800-plus analysts and consultants around the world to review each other’s work before publication.
The interface, while a little slow, provides a fail-safe mechanism that prevents publication without a minimum number of reviews and a manager’s sign-off. “The culture is one of sharing in Gartner,” says Roberts, one of the company’s vice-presidents.
“GRADS, or any other collaborative system, would fail without that culture of community. There are too many instances in large organisations where colleagues guard their knowledge and adopt an attitude of ‘why should I tell you?’
“For the sake of the organisation, management must stamp out such behaviour because they will find it increasingly difficult to survive in an information-charged economy.”
Roberts says organisations grappling with information overload should decide what they want to achieve. “The greatest threat to business is ignorance -- not knowing what is happening around you,” he continues.
“A philosophy based around corporate performance management and the balanced scorecard is an excellent place to start for senior management. “Throughout the organisation, information should be gathered to reflect workers’ KPIs (key performance indicators). The challenge is to get the right information to the right people at the right time.”
In this era of IT scepticism, articulating a clear case for a return on investment (ROI) is essential.
Eclipse’s Williams says capturing the savings is not an easy task as some of the benefits manifest themselves “soft” ways, such as improvement in risk management assessment, increased utilisation of existing templates and other intellectual property, and reduction in time-to-publish.
“The more demonstrable improvements,” Williams says, “are the centralisation of publishing and reductions in costs for network maintenance, storage, printing, and people. But to achieve this, you have to build a collaborative framework or intranet that staff will want to use. If the interface is terrible, then they won’t come back.”
No escaping info overload
If only life were so simple, says Phillips Fox’s John Duckett, one of the few IT chiefs in Australia with a degree in knowledge management. “In a legal practice, the only philosophy that really exists is the demand to retain every scrap of information,” he says. “My storage demands double every year at the moment. We keep everything in triplicate, and I am not even sure how much of it is read.”
The firm uses a content management tool called 42 -- named in honour of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (“42” is the answer to the meaning of life for those who are not fans of author Douglas Adams.) Phillips Fox has also deployed the Fulcrum full-text search engine and Hummingbird technology at the back-end to encourage e-mail archiving. “One strategy has been to use the archiving system as a reason to bring down the size of an individual’s mailbox to 50 megabytes, says Duckett. “That has not been easy to achieve because there is always someone with a good reason why the policy should not apply to them.
“We discuss the problem of information overload quite a lot, but there is no easy solution when everyone wants to keep everything. It’s part of the culture of a major legal practice.”
“Every company is a victim of information overload,” observes Swayne Hill, managing director of business intelligence specialist Cognos and the holder of a degree in philosophy. “There is a tonne of pressure to change the situation. We know there is technology out there to get the job down, but the true force must be behavioural change.
“Senior management must show a commitment to the process and take ownership of any project to ease the problem. But chief executives are under pressure to retain as much data as possible because of the recent changes to legislation to ensure their personal accountability for corporate reportage of their numbers.
“At the end of the day, they want to stay in cufflinks, not handcuffs.”
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine, a ZDNet Australia publication.
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