You likely already know that information is perhaps the most valuable asset our organizations possess because it is at the root of everything we do: keep records, report on operations, communicate with customers, make decisions, etc.
Just how much value it has depends upon how well we assure its quality on the back end, where it is stored, and how well we ensure its clarity on the front end, where it is used. Issues affecting the findability, accuracy, timeliness and security of our information cause value to leak out as they erode its ultimate dependability. And issues affecting how intuitive and sensibly-displayed the information is to the people consuming it cause value to leak out as they erode its comprehensibility and usability.
Until now, minimizing these issues on the back and front ends has been tackled separately, often under the monikers of Information Governance and Clear Information. Practically speaking, this may have made sense given the vastly different skills and technologies needed to accomplish each. However, if our goal is to maximize the total value of the information in our care — and it is — then we really ought to think of them not as two distinct halves, but as a single whole that runs from managing our information on the one hand to presenting it on the other.
Our goal must be to optimize and integrate both so no value is lost due to poor information quality or confusing information design.
The Two Sides of the Value Coin
Information governance operates on the information itself to assure its quality. In a nutshell, it ensures the data is well defined, normalized, available, protected from unauthorized viewing or changing, and auditable so its history can be documented. Doing this right means that people receiving that information don’t have to worry about its provenance and fidelity; they can simply get on with their day.
The problem is that organizations that give short shrift to this run the risk of being unable to find information when it is needed, or finding it but not knowing if it is reliable, or being unaware that it is so old that it (by policy) should have been deleted. The result then can be decisions based on faulty premises due to incomplete or incorrect or outdated information.
Clear information, on the other hand, presents information in a way that is maximally intuitive and understandable. This way the person receiving it doesn’t have to waste time figuring out what the darn thing says and what it means, so they too can get on with their day.
The problem here is that organizations that overlook how information is presented risk customer dissatisfaction (at best) and a loss of customers (at worst), and additional customer service calls that ultimately lead to higher costs as time is spent explaining what the document was meant to. To be sure, this often boils down to confusing document layouts. But the heavy information component in documents like financial statements, invoices, explanations of benefits, etc. puts a heavy burden on the information provider as once the information is wrong or even questioned, major trust issues can ensue.
How effectively the two sides of the information house can be unified depends heavily on whether and to what degree they share a few core technical capabilities. In years past, these were implemented either separately or to an uneven and painfully limited degree; today, we can fairly readily implement them to serve as a short, straight “pipe” to move information from governance to clear presentation.
The ability to identify and locate pieces of information that are relevant to the application at hand is fundamental to all our information processes; just imagine, for instance, mixing up one customer’s investment account number and latest transactions and balances with another’s! In this regard, information governance focuses on combing out any tangles and then designating a single source of the truth, while clear information techniques involve plucking the right information from the overall pile and presenting it cleanly for ready use by the recipient. Using the same engine for both can ensure nothing gets missed or included in error.
Taxonomy and Metadata
The fundamental tools shared by information governance and clear information to facilitate search/find start with taxonomy and metadata, which have to do with the categorization and labeling of information. Two of the biggest reasons information governance utilizes these is to facilitate the application of rules of records retention and disposal, as well as legal hold, leveraging records classes, policy-based timetables, and legal department inputs to manage the process. Clear information practices also leverage them, as much as anything in order to determine what information belongs to which person and how best to display it. Using the same constructs for both — especially when it comes to metadata — is key to ensuring consistent results.
Neither of the preceding capabilities means anything if the systems used in information governance can’t speak to those used in creating clear information deliverables. At minimum, the tools used on the latter side of our two-sided “coin” must be able to access the output of a search routine performed by the former. But it would be far better if they actually behaved as a single system and let the composition tools directly touch the information being governed, and vice versa. That way the latest database updates could be reflected in the documents being output, and undeliverable document addressees can be reported to the database, both in real time.
It was either Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, “An army marches on its stomach,” meaning that if you want troops to perform, then you have to keep them fed. Well, much the same can be said for organizations, which move on the strength of their information — meaning that if you want your company to perform, then you have to assure the quality and usability of the information in your care. Failure to do so will erode whatever value it had and thereby degrade the business outcomes that were based upon it.
Both information governance and clear information techniques do an excellent job maintaining information quality and usability. But until now, they’ve done so independently of one another, leaving gaps in the overall process through which value can leak out.
To avoid this, we recommend that the two disciplines be considered and implemented as extensions of one another, with information management on one end and information presentation on the other. The goal must be to have them interoperate seamlessly so value can be kept high.
Steve Weissman is Principal Consultant at Holly Group, where he helps you Do Information Right™ by bringing order and discipline to your information and process practices. Known as The Info Gov Guy™, he has spent the past 25+ years equipping clients to better their ability to find, leverage, secure and assure their business-critical information — and to solve the “people” part of the puzzle as well. Honored as both an AIIM Fellow and recipient of AIIM’s prestigious Award of Merit, he is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org / 617-383-4655 / @steveweissman.