Turning Trash into Treasure

Help your organization realize tangible value from the unstructured data scattered across your business.
Rob LivingstoneJuly 1, 2013

Where staffers have the ability to freely create or download files such as Word documents, spreadsheets, emails or the output from Smart-Boards, and then store the files somewhere in your organization’s IT infrastructure, cloud or otherwise, they are adding to your pool of unstructured data. Globally, unstructured data is growing fast – by 40 percent to 50 percent per year, estimates research firm IDC.

It calls to mind former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously stating in 2002, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

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Rumsfeld’s quotation, while seemingly convoluted, is quite relevant to the fragmented, unstructured data that is spread across your business:

  • The “known known” is that many organizations have accumulated large amounts of unstructured data buried in file servers, PCs, cloud repositories, USB memory sticks, smart phones and other storage mediums and repositories across, and even potentially outside of, the organization.
  • The “known unknown” is that the fragmented data has some potential intrinsic value. In areas with high staff turnover, or where there has been restructuring or downsizing, corporate memory could be locked away in this unstructured data and potentially harnessed.
  • The “unknown unknown” is the net realizable value of the fragmented data when collated, analyzed and interpreted to help the organization achieve its current and future goals. An important unknown is whether you have visibility over all unstructured data over which your organization has title.

While Big Data is a hot topic in the IT world at the moment, CFOs should not overlook the potential value locked away in their disparate, unstructured data and information repositories.

Four of the 7 Vs of Big Data – validity, veracity, value and visibility ­­– are all highly relevant to your unstructured data. If your unstructured data meets these criteria and is not being utilized in your organization, ask yourself why.

Leverage Your Information Taxonomies
Google is the undisputed master of content search across the Internet. In essence it has positioned itself very effectively as the information umpire. Without owning the source data and information, Google has mastered the technology and art of presenting relevant and hopefully useful information in response to a request for information across the Internet.

As a CFO, you are well placed to emulate this capability within your organization by driving enterprise initiatives to maximize the value extracted from your unstructured data. With the support of your CIO and others who have a clear understanding of your enterprise information and data taxonomies, backed by deep technical and rigorous competencies in analysis and information interpretation, you stand the best chance of helping unlock this value and expressing it in business and commercial terms.

Typically, a prerequisite for unlocking this value is having a well designed and managed enterprise-wide Master Data Management (MDM) regime. If your organization does not have an MDM process, establishing one should be your first step.

Managing the Unmanageable
Knowing where your existing unstructured data is at any point in time is one thing. Managing its future generation and distribution is another matter altogether.

The prevalence of smart phones and cloud computing adds another dimension to the spread of data across your organization. With the shadow IT phenomenon alive and well in many organizations, and in the absence of strict technical controls and policies, what measures do you have in place to ensure your security controls are not porous? Can trusted staff save important files to a cloud-based storage service without questions being raised?

At the end of the day, the explosive proliferation of unstructured data is here to stay, and as a CFO, the proactive consideration of how, where and where you should manage this data should be at the core of your enterprise information management strategy. It’s not something you should pass over to IT to fix all by itself.

Turn unstructured data to your advantage. Ignoring it is no longer an option.

Rob Livingstone, a former CIO, is the author of Navigating Through the Cloud. He runs an IT advisory practice and is also a Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, where he teaches strategy and innovation in the school’s flagship MBITM program. Visit Rob at or e-mail him at [email protected].