Is unstructured data lurking in your organization? Probably. Should you be concerned about it? Absolutely.

According to Gartner, unstructured data likely represents as much as 80% of a given organization’s information assets. Unstructured data comes in many different forms, and it poses significant risks to your business’s security and compliance. In this article, we’ll examine what constitutes unstructured data, what makes it so risky, and what you can do about it. 

What Is Unstructured Data?

Unstructured data can exist in bulk paper or electronic form and can be either human- or machine-generated. Unstructured data can include:

  • Email, text, and instant messages
  • Unsecured paper in folders, file cabinets, your desk at home, etc.
  • Word processing documents, PDFs, and spreadsheets stored on shared drives or individual machines
  • Official records such as business plans, product designs, commercial information, and at times, customer data
  • Images, phone recordings, and video files
  • Memo fields within customer relationship management (CRM) systems

The main difference between structured and unstructured data is that unstructured data lies outside of a system that organizes and secures it. It is much harder to analyze and track and is often vulnerable to unauthorized access.

Risks of Unstructured Data

Think about how many times you’ve seen a folder on a team member’s desktop or within a shared drive labeled “Mary’s Files” or “Tyrone’s Stuff.” Sensitive business data or customer information could lie within these innocuous-looking folders, untracked, waiting to be breached. 

A potential data breach isn’t the only risk companies face when it comes to unstructured data. Noncompliance with regulations can lead to civil or criminal prosecution for business owners or leaders who are found to be negligent or improperly handling sensitive information. Organizations can also find themselves subject to audits that demand time and money which could otherwise be spent on revenue-generating or mission-advancing work…not to mention the financial penalties that can include fines, back taxes, interest, and more if violations are uncovered.

Finally, frequent or severe noncompliance can force a company to suspend operations or even close its doors entirely. For companies that are able to continue operating, the damage to a company’s business reputation can destroy customer, vendor, and lender confidence. This makes for a long uphill battle to regain trust and can severely limit the organization’s ability to seize future growth opportunities. 

What To Do About Unstructured Data 

Bringing your organization’s data into compliance can seem overwhelming, and for good reason—it’s a big and important job. You can get started by doing the following:

  • Implement and enforce a document policy. File naming conventions can make it much easier to search and locate documents and data.
  • Assign an owner to any sensitive data and designate any other data custodians who will be responsible for handling the information. 
  • Create a classification system that describes the sensitivity of your data—Confidential, Private, Sensitive, and Public are common terms used. 
  • Delete unnecessary files. After the first 90 days following creation, document usage rapidly declines. Unstructured data that is no longer relevant or useful is considered “dark” data. Having team members responsible for regularly removing this data once it is no longer needed will help reduce your risks—but it’s important to ensure that the data is not part of the official record before deleting.

A content services platform like Q-Action can put structures in place and help alleviate some of the manual work that comes with managing content. Some software also comes equipped with records management capabilities that can automatically eliminate official records once their retention period expires. Document owners and user access can also be automatically set based on a file’s characteristics so users won’t have to worry about assigning them every time. In addition, a content services platform with records management capabilities can automatically declare the appropriate retention schedule for documents upon creation, so users don’t have to worry about setting parameters for each individual record.

QFlow Systems has a proven track record of helping both public and private sector organizations address unstructured data concerns with our flagship content services platform, Q-Action. We not only provide the software in a convenient and sustainable SaaS model, but our experts also help guide organizations through the process of implementation, which often includes cataloging existing documents. 

If tackling unstructured data in your organization is on your priority list for 2021, we want to help. A call with a QFlow Systems expert is the first step to mitigating the risks to your business. Call us at 877.652.1439 or request a proof of concept today to get started!

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