It has been said that eDiscovery is the tail that wags the information governance (IG) dog. This idiom deftly describes scenarios for companies that drag their feet in managing their information assets until they are forced into applying ad hoc measures to answer critical litigation or compliance requests.  Without effective information management, these standard tasks become costly, inefficient, last-minute scrambles. If this happens often enough or becomes expensive enough, the impetus to enact information governance measures can end up gaining traction.  A good place to start deploying effective IG strategy is with data organization.

In some ways, you can think of organizing electronically stored information (ESI) along the lines of straightening a large, untidy closet whose clutter makes it difficult to find items that you need in emergencies. Where do you start in this situation? First, take stock of the problem, then go through each item in the closet and decide what to keep, put into storage or throw away. Items are put back into the closet in a systematic fashion which makes things easier to find, with critical items in easy reach. Ideally, you will make rules to avoid a repeat of the mess. Each new item should have a place in the closet. To keep it neat, you will ensure everyone knows what can go into the closet and check it occasionally to make sure it meets your household needs.

Let’s take this metaphor to the extreme – the random ESI in your organization is a messy closet. Until you look into all the nooks and crannies, you may not know exactly what actually is stored in the system. In a closet you may have old boots, in the server room, you may find old file servers. Either way, you need to find out if they have value and if not, purge it.

Taking stock of ESI within your company should start with a data inventory that answers critical questions about the current state of your information assets. Where does data reside across your organization (what on earth is in this closet)? How many of these files are actively used (will I really wear that sweater with the hole in it)? Is information duplicated (I’m not Steve Jobs, how many black turtlenecks do I need)?  Depending on the size of your company, this ‘data inventory’ can get very detailed. However, this step is essential because it forms the basis for finding out how your corporate data is created, who owns it and its business purpose.

With a data inventory in hand, you now have a good starting point to clarify what data is actually needed to run the business, which information assets should be preserved and what can be defensibly deleted as ROT (redundant, outdated or trivial information). The inventory will form the foundation for your IG system. With this analysis you can start to prioritize requirements to make relevant ESI functional, searchable and sustainable while getting rid of the unneeded files.

Tools can be chosen and deployed to help manage, update and search these cleaned up data stores. Identifying and organizing data gives a structure to deploy effective IG policy and procedure. New technology, software or solutions can be brought online within this framework. In other instances, plans and procedures will need to be modified to fit changing priorities.

To help avoid a repeat of the original issues, end-users should be educated on their interaction with corporate systems. This should include what is appropriate to transmit or store using company resources, where new data should reside, retention policies that are in effect, and key contact points identified should there be any questions about corporate policy. Regular auditing of strategy and system growth will help keep data organized and make it easier to respond to critical requests.

When put together, policy, procedure and auditing all play a part in getting a good IG system up to speed. As a first step, you will find that organizing your messy ESI closet goes a long way to making eDiscovery searches less painful.

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