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More apps are being used more than ever before - What does this mean for company data?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Carlos Amarillo)

Managing a remote workforce brings with it a unique set of challenges - ranging from establishing a remote IT infrastructure to maintaining company culture while people are distributed. But one of the greatest obstacles associated with remote work is also perhaps one of the most overlooked: mitigating the risk of dispersed data while ensuring communication between customers, prospects, vendors, and colleagues remains fluid. This becomes particularly important when you consider just how many collaboration applications have flooded the workplace since Covid-19. According to identity security company Okta, large companies today report using an average of 175 apps, with smaller organizations deploying as many as 73 apps on average.

We’ve become dependent on these apps for things like email, messaging, document collaboration, video calls, scheduling, business relationship management, and more. But as these apps proliferate, they easily become walled gardens: separate, siloed stores of data being shared in different formats, making companies’ information massively fragmented. 

Add to this the fact that the data these apps generate is mainly unstructured. For reference, unstructured data has no pre-defined format or organization, making it that much more difficult to collect, process, and analyze. This is in comparison to structured data, which is highly organized and formatted in a way that makes it easily searchable within an organization (think: information stored in relational databases). The central challenge for many organizations today is how to turn that fragmented, unstructured data into useful knowledge.

The critical importance of ‘knowing what you don’t know’ 

No matter the scale, discovering information and filling the gaps in corporate knowledge is essential for any company to succeed. Not ‘knowing what you don’t know’ hinders the potential for innovation and may lead to operational challenges down the road. 

For instance, scattered knowledge silos and hidden data can have costly consequences when it comes to fulfilling eDiscovery requests in response to litigation. It can also slow down investigations or M&A due diligence, or complicate compliance. 

Maintaining smart information governance must be treated as the gold standard. Not only can this help organizations keep their corporate data in order and prepare for the unexpected, but it can also allow them to be more proactive in how they might apply that data, including for better decision-making or to unlock new insights. 

Below are four actionable steps that organizations can follow that can help them begin to understand and better manage how data is being stored and shared. 

Build a data retention policy: It’s important to have a set of rules that governs how long data is kept within your organization, and having a policy that’s driven by specific business, operational, and regulatory or legal requirements allows you to manage the policy in a programmatic way. The best way to begin building a data retention policy is to understand what type of records, documents or data you have, and to understand the business processes that generate or receive this data. This will tell you who owns the data and what system the information is being stored in, which is important because it’s not enough to just have a policy – you also have to be able to then implement the policy where the data lives. 

Ensure you have a grasp on your most sensitive data: The first step in categorizing and managing sensitive data is understanding what is defined as ‘sensitive’. For most businesses, this likely means internal revenue numbers, private customer information, or anything that has to be maintained in a structured way for compliance reasons. Don’t assume that everyone in the organization knows what should be in this category. Make sure policies are in writing, update these documents regularly, and share this guidance with your employees.

Uncharted territory

Remind employees that work devices (and data) are the property of the company: When an employee joins your company, they agree to take responsibility for the hardware and software provided for them on behalf of the organization. Remind your team that what they say and do in the workplace makes up corporate knowledge. Some of the best collaboration tools are so user-friendly that employees may forget they are communicating in a work environment. Be sure that they are aware of the fact the organization owns any information they share on a work machine.

Set and share a standard privacy agreement: Having a standard operating privacy agreement for employees to follow is critical. Remember, don’t assume that team leads and managers understand the best ways to share data. Work with your operations team to put together a document with a standard set of rules, procedures and best practices. Present this standard agreement to the entire company and then train managers on how to set these procedures in place with their team.

The last thing you want to do is hamstring your team’s communication. So long as data is being shared responsibly and important information can be effectively identified and retained, free up your team to use whatever tools are necessary to work with each other and clients. The key is to make sure that employees are aware of the best ways to handle the flow of information, recognize what constitutes ‘sensitive information’ and always remain vigilant about what and how they communicate. 

For many organizations, remote and hybrid working models are uncharted territory. The apps that support these distributed workforces are generating more data than ever before, which means that having the right tools and processes in place to help find, manage, and protect unstructured data across multiple apps is essential. Staying proactive in terms of your information governance strategy can not only help save money and time, it can also minimize risk and boost competitiveness as you plan for the future.

Scott McVeigh, Industry Principal, Onna

Scott McVeigh is the Industry Principal at Onna. For over 24 years he has been providing information governance strategies and technology implementations, both as a consultant and in-house roles.