Protect your information: The power of paper in the age of big data

A few years ago Qinetiq, a defence company, built a small, unmanned aircraft to take pictures of its hot air balloon record attempt. The engineer responsible for the airbag that would cushion the miniature aircraft on landing was so thrilled with his revolutionary design that he decided to submit it for patenting. All went well until a routine review of the company's paper archives revealed that a near identical design had been created in the 1950s by the engineer's grandfather.

Read more: Busting the myth of the paperless office

There is an important lesson here about the need for effective information management. It should never be difficult for employees to access the knowledge stored within their business, preferably before they repeat previously completed work. In a seminal 2001 research paper about the high cost of not finding information, industry analyst IDC said that knowledge workers can spend up to 90 per cent of their time recreating information that already exists in their organisation.

Indexing securely-stored paper archives or scanning paper documents for easy search, retrieval and analysis can help companies mine their legacy information for knowledge and insight. Digitised documents can be subjected to modern data analysis techniques, or investigated alongside digital records, revealing things that could have taken years, or cost a fortune, to discover another way.

Businesses need to make sure that they take care of their paper documents, know where to find them when they need them and understand how to extract the value from the information. For many firms this can seem to be easier said than done.

When businesses keep their paper on site in the office, they often store it in an inappropriate environment such as a damp basement totally unsuitable for long-term paper storage. Left behind in the dark, these documents are at the mercy of their chemical and physical environment. Temperature and humidity are the often first to attack; but over time insects, rodents, pollution and chemical contaminants can take their toll as well.

Protecting paper from all of this is a challenging task. It demands strictly controlled climatic surroundings, with stable and preferably low temperatures, low relative humidity (but not so low that the paper dries out and becomes brittle), limited exposure to light (but not so low that shade-loving mould is able to flourish), good ventilation (which can leave the door open for rodents and insects) but low levels of pollution (which can be a challenge for basements in urban areas), dust control and safeguards against chemical cross-contamination from other materials, including other documents and even things such as shelving, paint and packaging.

All this is exacerbated by the fact that paper is by its very nature extremely prone to deterioration. Before 1850, paper was made using long plant fibres such as cotton, flax or straw that meshed together to create strong and durable material. Today, paper manufacturers use short-stringed - and therefore weaker - wood pulp, which is then strengthened artificially using aluminium sulphate, and battered about during the mechanical production process. Recycling paper weakens the structure still further.

Then there is the issue that personnel changes often result in lost knowledge of what documents are filed and where, making it difficult to find critical information at short notice. The reality with paper on site is that over times it is inclined to get lost, damaged or destroyed. Job changes, mergers and acquisitions, company restructurings and office moves can mean that vast volumes of information disappear or end up archived away and forgotten. Fragmented supply chains can mean that information ends up spread across companies and individuals.

The Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo space missions in the 1960s and 70s was designed and built in great haste by a wide range of suppliers and engineers. Millions of documents were created, including blueprints, designs, descriptions and test results. Nobody ever pulled all of these together into a single document repository, for which one company or individual was responsible. Today, only fragments of the information can still be found. Many of those involved in its creation or use are long gone. If mankind wishes to return an astronaut to the moon with the same methods that were used back then, much of the knowledge would be have to be recreated.

Most companies don't have to deal with quite such a dramatic scenario, but faced with an ageing workforce, a younger generation of employees who change jobs with seemingly greater frequency, rapid product life-cycles and fluid supply chains, protecting information so as not to lose its value is becoming a major challenge.

Where should you start? First and foremost, you need to introduce a robust, centralised information management policy that can accommodate data in all its formats and structures, and accept that this is not just something to throw onto the shoulders of the IT department. You need to know what you know, where it is and who is responsible for it.

Make your data future-friendly. Establish an approach for converting the most valuable paper information into digital formats that can be easily read 10 or 20 years from now, and securely archive the rest offsite. Accept that you will not be able to keep everything and probably have a legal obligation to delete certain types of information after an agreed length of time. For the information you choose to keep, it is important to introduce easy to use search and retrieval processes, and to know how to extract the value of all your information.

Read more: Goodbye paper? A closer look at Sony's new Digital Paper business slate

Organisations have to constantly reflect on what they are doing to protect and extract the value of all their information. The best innovations can come from looking at old data in a new way, so make sure yours is captured and safe. Your successors and their successors in turn will thank you for it.

Phil Greenwood is the director of information management and business outsourcing at Iron Mountain.