How Long Do I Keep Information?

In case you are wondering how the garage cleaning went last weekend (see my last posting)  … I filled several trash bags and boxes worth of items that were donated and several others for the trash.  In order to ensure I was only disposing of unnecessary stuff and not valued items, I secured the approval of my family stakeholders before disposing of anything.  The results we’re fantastic … I cleared several shelves worth of storage space that allowed me to reorganize for better findability.  I now have plenty of room to store more items and everything is properly organized so I can find things in the future, including the lost flashlight, which is no longer lost.  Best of all, it didn’t cost me anything except a little time.

It’s exactly the same with information.  Like the unnecessary stuff I was keeping in my garage, information has a useful lifespan that ultimately requires disposition.  In simple terms, information is created, used, stored and should ultimately be disposed of.  It should be obvious from my previous posting why information disposal is probably the most important step in this “information lifecycle”.

Many people get confused by this notion though.  The confusion comes in when deciding how long (and why) they need to keep things for.  There are two primary schools of thought on this:

  • Keep information based on how often it is used or accessed – the frequency of access model … or …
  • Keep information based on actual value or obligation – the business value (and obligation) model.

The frequency of access paradigm gave us the term “information lifecycle management” or “ILM” a couple of years ago.  This was a vendor driven idea that moved information between storage tiers based on frequency of access.  It never really caught on as it didn’t address the core issues especially the disposal of information.  It’s an interesting concept if your motive is to sell storage.  Moving information around to optimize storage infrastructure is a good idea but only part of the answer.  Business need, relevance and usage combined with regulatory and legal obligations truly determine how long information must be managed, retained and governed.

In simple terms, we should keep information because it is an asset (business value) and/or because we have an obligation to do so (legal and regulatory).  Debra Logan (Vice President at Gartner) has been publishing excellent research on this topic.  Best practices exist as well.  The new Information Management Reference Model (IMRM), from the same organization that gave us The Electronic Discovery Reference Model (EDRM), aligns the key stakeholders (IT, Business and RIM/Legal) with the key issues (asset, value and duty) and the key benefits (efficiency, profit and reduced risk).  There are a number of other approaches as well, notably The Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles (GARP) from ARMA.

Best of all, optimizing systems and storage infrastructure based on business context of usage, not just frequency of access, is much easier to do when things are properly organized (classified) based on actual need/value.

In summary, the business value of information changes over time requiring Information Lifecycle Governance eventually requiring defensible disposition (more on that next time).  I hope you manage and govern your information based on business value and your obligations.  If not, check out some the links above to get started.  I also hope your information spring cleaning is coming along as well as my garage is.  I am so motivated by my results that the attic is next for me.

Spring Cleaning for Information

I find myself wondering (as I plan to clean out the garage today) what time of year we’re supposed to throw out all that unnecessary information we keep around.  Since cleaning out the garage doesn’t qualify as fun in my book, I would sure be easier just to add space to my garage.  That way, I’d never have to throw anything away.  It would cost alot … and make it much harder to find important stuff among all of the clutter but it would be easier.  Maybe I should just call a contractor (5 minutes) rather then actually clean out the garage (at least an hour or more).  Hhhmmm …

It’s funny that when it comes to this aspect of information management we seem to always take the path of least resistance.  I’ve lost count of many times I’ve heard “storage is cheap” or other reasons why organizations don’t properly manage the lifespan of their information.  Most organizations don’t have a responsible program to properly dispose of electronically stored information.  How is this possible when those same organizations usually have good control over and properly dispose of paper based information?

Sure it’s harder to properly organize, retain and dispose of electronically stored information but the keep everything forever model has failed.  Buying more storage is not the answer.  Storage already consumes (on average) 17% of IT budgets and information will continue to explode … eventually gobbling up increasing percentages of IT budgets.  When does it end?  It won’t by itself.  Left unattended, this information explosion will eventually consume all remaining IT budget dollars and cripple or prevent any strategic investments by IT.

If that weren’t sobering enough, valued information is already buried beneath too much unnecessary information.  Much of it is over-retained, irrelevant and duplicated.  This is causing runaway storage and infrastructure costs and exacerbating power, space and budget challenges.  It’s also creating an inability to find and produce critical information, especially under punitive scenarios and deadlines.  How can anyone find and leverage the useful and trustworthy information lost among all the junk?

This sounds exactly like my garage … the power went out the other night and I was desperate to find that really cool flashlight I bought last year in case of a power outage.  Couldn’t find it, which ended up being my motivation to clean out the garage and throw out all of the unneccessary stuff that is piling up.  No garage extension for me!  No offsite storage facility either!  The fact is, I don’t want to spend more money on simply storing random unnecessary stuff.  I have higher value activities to spend my budget on … like golf 🙂

Isn’t it time every organization did their own information spring cleaning?  It would reduce storage/infrastructure costs, improve findability of information, reduce legal risks and increase usefulness and re-use of information.

Maybe you are already planning to clean out your garage of enterprise information.  Leave me your thoughts on the topic or visit us at the upcoming National Conference on Managing Electronic Records in Chicago.  We’ll be doing a special session on Content Assessment and how to use Content Analytics to identify and defensibly decommission and routinely dispose of unnecessary information.