In the late 1500s, privateer and explorer Martin Frobisher embarked upon a journey that would net him fame—Frobisher Bay is named for him—but not much fortune. His travels took him to what is now Canada, where he claimed Baffin Island for the Crown because of the vast amounts of gold he found there. He was so convinced he had found great riches that he continued to make multiple trips with increasingly more ships to mine and send the ore home for safekeeping. Queen Elizabeth I even ordered quadruple locks in the Tower of London to guard the trove.

Unfortunately for all, however, what Frobisher had so diligently worked to procure, transport, and store was nothing but iron pyrite—fool’s gold. Once it was discovered that his cache was not real gold, an Italian alchemist was engaged to work his magic and transform the worthless rocks into the gold everyone desired. Needless to say, he was unsuccessful.

I was reminded of this story while attending the Information Governance Conference recently in Connecticut.

The ability to derive value from the vast stores of information we continue to accumulate was a central theme of the conference, focused on the first leg of the Information Governance stool: Value, Risk, and Compliance

Like Frobisher, we are easily blinded by shiny possibilities imagined from the information we create and collect. We envision insights about our customers, our business, our products, and even predictions for that “next big thing” that will help us outpace our competitors—vast riches to be gleaned from big data. And like Queen Elizabeth, we must create secure containers in which to keep all the data—containers that must grow exponentially to preserve and protect this potential wisdom from intrusion and theft.

The reality is that not all information is valuable, and no amount of alchemy will change that fact. Having too much information may not only distract us, its maintenance will gobble up resources better spent on protecting and mining the small subset that is truly useful. In the worst case, TMI may become your most horrible nightmare in the event of a breach. Just ask Sony.

There are things we can do. Well-known companies in diverse industries shared their experiences and success stories at the conference. Aon, AstraZeneca, McKesson, Walmart, Phillips 66, Blue Cross Blue Shield each had a story to tell. Some projects were focused, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield using metrics to help clean out duplication in network shares. Others were quite grand, such as Aon’s global information governance initiative that has evolved over several years and now boasts an $11-million budget and an internal network of more than 600 information governance managers worldwide.

Information governance is still a somewhat amorphous concept to many, and a lack of education remains the biggest barrier to initiating projects. What this conference did, however, was help focus the lens on practical projects. Most were foundational: knowing what information you have, where it is, and how it is used. Having this intelligence is critical before we can reliably apply data security controls, privacy standards, retention, and analytics. Only good data will yield good analytics.

My takeaways?

  1. Information is an underutilized corporate asset, and some companies are clearly beginning to “get it” in a big way.
  2. Not all information is equally valuable—indeed most is redundant, obsolete, or trivial.
  3. Smart organizations take steps to identify what’s truly valuable, and compliantly dispose of the rest, making information governance a reality as certain as balancing the books.