Communication
May 7, 2012

Taming the information explosion

Not to be too dramatic, but information is like a raging inferno. Information, central to everything we do in government, is raging out of control. The amount of information is doubling every 12-14 months, which often makes finding the right information at the right time difficult and frustrating.

Growing amounts of abandoned or “orphaned” information in personal folders and abandoned collaboration spaces results in information effectively lost to the organization. Add to this the increase in document intensity (80 percent of our information assets are contained in unstructured formats) and the speed with which we are expected to read, process, analyze and decide. We can all begin to feel the heat.

Unlike the raging forest fire or a burning oil well, this inferno is not threatening human lives – yet. But just like other infernos, it is consuming scarce resources and affecting delivery. In Ontario, we are actively working to regain control and manage information in a way that improves productivity and supports enhanced service delivery.

Assessing the situation
What seems to fuel, sustain and help the inferno? First, our current ways of working, and current file share technology, don’t easily support our need to work and share information across a ministry and across the government. As a result, we see an explosion of email messages transmitting the same content to multiple people, a certain percentage of whom will each name and save the content item somewhere. This leads to tremendous duplication. And this duplication costs.

Second, the way we organize information is neither clear nor intuitive, and this confuses users. Add weak search functions and skills to the mix, and it is no wonder that employees begin to develop their own private repositories (often in MS Outlook!) where they have confidence they will find what they need when they need it.

Third, without clearly established responsibilities and accountabilities, we are not always sure who is managing what. As a result, multiple people end up managing the same content – a clear duplication of effort.

Finally, and fundamentally, the culture for managing information in most organizations is primarily “individualistic,” meaning each employee does it differently. This individualistic culture has developed over a period of more than 25 years. Since distributed computing was introduced in the early 1980s, we have given staff ever more powerful and sophisticated tools, but very few rules. Staff have been left to organize their own information space and make up their own rules. Public servants continue to deliver critical services to the public, but continuing to do it in a way that works for the individual is costing the enterprise enormous amounts of money and raising our risk exposure to unacceptable levels.

Employees are often frustrated trying to find information. Decision-makers wonder whether they have accurate, high-quality information on which to base decisions. Lost and stolen portable computing devices, whose content is often not secured by password or encryption, increase the risks to privacy and the protection of sensitive information. Legal discovery, and identifying content responsive to access requests, takes longer and costs more – and in the end, we can’t confirm with certainty that we’ve found it all. The direct costs of weak practices – backing-up redundant files, lease costs for large file rooms for paper storage to name two – are increasing rapidly.

Our approach
How to tame the inferno? In the Ontario Public Service we are embarking on a multi-year transformation in Enterprise Information Management (EIM). EIM enables us to regain control by attacking the fuels that have kept the inferno burning.

EIM establishes a core set of common standards and practices as well as clear roles and accountabilities for managing information assets, supported by a technology environment that allows us to automate many processes and controls that today are manual and left to the discretion of individuals. With 80 percent of content “born digitally,” EIM supports end-to-end management of information in a digital environment. Central to this new environment is the ability to search across the entire enterprise, supporting greater collaboration and leveraging information from various sources. It’s about working smarter to deliver better value.

Common rules, standards and practices
Anthropologists have been telling us for a long time that key components of culture are the norms established for behaviour. It has always struck me as odd that we have well-established norms, and accepted standards and practices, for managing money and people – two other resources critical to delivery. And we hold people accountable for working within these norms. Yet when it comes to information, we seem content to let everyone do it differently.

We are beginning to establish norms based on existing legislation and policy. We are developing common standards and practices to support accessibility, risk management, quality assurance as well as information planning, evaluation and reporting. In an EIM environment, many standards and practices (e.g., access controls to protect personal and sensitive information) can be programmed into the technology platform further reinforcing the norm and reducing variability based on individual judgement. And, EIM can provide a full audit trail for all activities associated with a particular content item.

Responsibilities and accountabilities
Clear roles, responsibilities and accountabilities will be established so we know who is responsible for what. We can also establish and automate who has authority for certain actions (e.g., authorizing destruction or imposing a legal hold on content). Content owners will have different responsibilities than content stewards. And as we move forward, it would not surprise me if we don’t discover that we need new roles that have never, to date, been defined.

Automate processes and controls

One of the more exciting things about our new information management environment will be the ability to automate what is today largely a manual process. Take for example retention of business records. Today, we are reliant on individual program areas to identify content that has reached the end of its retention period and then to manually delete it from the system. In an EIM environment, we can build retention periods into the classification regime and automate its disposition with a certificate of destruction or record of transfer to the Archives of Ontario. We can also automate access controls – who can see an item, who can open it, and who can edit particular content. Maybe we only want a select few to be able to edit, but we want everyone to be able to open the item. These controls can be built in at the item level, improving our ability to protect against unauthorized disclosure of personal or sensitive information. We can even automate controls around what can be downloaded onto a portable storage device, adding a further level of control on what information content may be leaving the work premises.

Going digital
Today, we manage a mix of paper records, electronic records, and other physical forms. In an EIM environment, the primary environment for managing information will be digital. Eighty-percent is “born digitally,” and EIM will enable the digitization of non-digital formats. Going digital also means we can have fully automated workflows for review, approval, final signature and publishing. Imagine no more managing parallel systems for briefing notes. In the future, there will still be paper; it just won’t be our primary record of government activity (except for some few legacy contexts where it does n

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