Information does not appear in a vacuum. It can and does take on a life all its own, which needs to be managed accordingly. Digital data, for example, can be created without notice – which can then expand and proliferate as routine tasks are performed. Email, databases, web pages, documents, posts, tweets and hordes of other electronically stored information (ESI) grow exponentially in volume over time and slowly age. These bits and bytes do not wither away; they must be actively disposed of to effectively complete the electronic circle of life.
One way to think of the electronic information lifecycle is in the terms of tending a garden. In the absence of proper cultivation, data can spring up unawares or become inaccessible (or worse, ignored) if not given proper care. All those bits and bytes will run wild, soaking up storage and clogging up indexes with virtual weeds if left unattended- or they can be destroyed without protection from the elements. Pests, after all, exist in the electronic realm (think of malware, viruses, corrupt data or failing hardware) as well as the natural one.
The Information Lifecycle was first defined to help understand how business records are used in the day-to-day running of an organization. The basic outline includes five phases: creation, distribution, use, maintenance and disposition. In addition, many companies are legally required to follow the Generally Accepted Record Keeping Principles (GARP) espoused by ARMA and others which add accountability, protection, compliance and more to the process. Archiving has its own set of rules and considerations as do exceptions, especially when under pressure from legal or governmental constraints.
Whether stored in file cabinets or storage warehouses, hard copy records were handled by policies and personnel who coordinated physical records through the steps of the lifecycle. With the advent of computers and their rapid incorporation in everyday working life, the management of these records became at once simpler and far more complex. True, the need for physical paper storage declined; at the same time, the fact that electronic data can be created so quickly and in such large volumes opened up an entirely different set of challenges for storing, recovering, searching and disposing of business-critical information. New tools needed to be implemented to deal with the new media and rapidly expanding information sources (in both size and types). This transformation of data to the electronic realm – protocols, formats, data access, diversity of storage and new devices – has necessitated new tactics for not just handling the defined lifecycle, but also in adjacent areas to help control proliferation of data, defend against loss, define classifications and track asset management.
Handling all this data from inception to disposition in the electronic information lifecycle falls under the realm of Information Governance. Whether formally or informally, stakeholders should develop processes to define how this critical data should be handled. This includes the basics such as identifying data locations, understanding how all types of ESI are created and deployed as well as classifying its value to a company. How is this data used in day-to-day tasks? When will the ESI run the course of its use? Should it be preserved (archived) or disposed of? If the former is chosen, will there be a default retention time? If the latter, the process should be established to define when and how the data will be purged. How are exceptions such as litigation holds or required communications handled? Finally, for efficiency, security and regulatory purposes, is the lifecycle audited regularly to verify that data is not lost, unaccounted for or out of compliance?
The information lifecycle evolved from hard copy records to the vast and challenging realm of electronic data that grows in abundance today, which is projected to increase exponentially in the future. Understanding where it is data comes from, and planning for its future, remains a challenge to records managers everywhere- no matter the format.