For many small-to-medium enterprises, information governance is not high on the agenda. Alexandra Cain explains why it should be paramount.

    One organisation that has an appreciation for information management and governance is the National Native Title Tribunal. It is undergoing a comprehensive review of the way it manages, stores, archives and deletes information, as part of a merger of its systems with the Federal Court.

    The tribunal’s president, Raelene Webb GAICD, says the review stemmed from the fact that information governance and management wasn’t working and the organisation needed to understand why that was the case. “Once we had completed an initial assessment and discussion we realised we had no internal rules governing information. There was a lot of duplication and people were going to different places to find information,” says Webb.

    “We hadn’t been clear about our information ecosystem and we realised simply upgrading it wouldn’t fix it. So we needed to go to the root of the problem and develop a top-level strategy,” she adds.

    The National Native Title Tribunal is a special case as the way it stores information is governed by strict federal rules. So it is important that all staff are clear about the right approach to take. Says Webb: “We’ve had to go back to basics and look at how we use information and the rules we have to comply with. It’s been important to take the least disruptive approach for the business. We also need to define how we use information. For instance, there’s no point using Sharepoint to collaborate if there are already systems we use for that. So we’ve had to do workflow studies to ensure we’re doing things in the best way possible.”

    Leticia Mooney from content strategy firm Brutal Pixie has been helping Webb develop the tribunal’s new information governance framework. Mooney says it’s essential the approach to information governance takes into account both structured information – such as names and addresses held in databases – as well as unstructured information. This is often the information staff members retain in their brains that is not necessarily recorded in any formal way. She explains that when it comes to designing an information governance system, the board’s role is paramount as information filters from the top down better than it does from the bottom up. “If employees need to spend 10 minutes finding information, they are wasting time and this impacts productivity. If a company isn’t performing well, poor information governance could be one of the reasons why,” she says.

    Mooney stresses poor information management is often less about the system and more about poorly defined rules behind the way staff use information. “When the rules are clearly defined the business has greater assurance everyone can find information.” Unfortunately, adds Mooney, most businesses don’t treat information governance seriously enough. This is a problem no matter the size, sector and state of the business. Moreover, poor information governance leads to hidden costs in the enterprise. “You find people spend more time in meetings because they don’t know what to do. Then businesses end up wasting money on systems because they think that’s the way to stop information leaks. There can also be a brand impact if there’s outdated information in the public domain in places like old websites. These costs are so well hidden it’s difficult to measure them.”

    Creating a framework

    So why is information governance important? Mooney says it gives everyone in the organisation clarity about how and why information needs to be handled. There are also substantial risks to businesses that don’t manage this well. For instance, staff don’t understand which systems to use to find and store information, so they end up saving information on their own computers, without giving the rest of the business access to it.

    Mooney says while it can be tempting to take a “slash and burn” approach when reconfiguring an information management system, this only works if there are no legal requirements on the business to store information in certain ways or for a prescribed period of time.

    When it comes to the board’s responsibility for guiding information governance and management, Mooney says it is critical directors understand the business’ information ecosystem. “Management takes its lead from the board and the directors have a role ensuring the company can function to its highest possible level. Information governance is part of the strategic work the board should be doing. Directors should know how the rules work and if new systems are being introduced, they should know the right rules are in place. Information handling should be considered from a strategic perspective so the board’s role can have a cascading effect throughout the business,” she says.

    Similarly, business consultant Mark Glazebrook from On Purpose says information governance is the province of directors because they are the final custodians of the corporate memory. “To maintain and grow the organisation they have a responsibility to draw on these insights to ensure the viability of the company,” he says.

    Glazebrook says from his perspective, information management involves two steps. The first he calls “catch-up”. This is necessary when a business has not previously turned its attentions to proper information governance. “This is about looking back at what may not have been recorded in the past,” he explains. The second stage he calls “captivating”. This involves more than mechanically recording information. It’s part of a change-management process to make information management a core part of the business. It means that when problems arise, staff can easily put their hands on the documentation they require to address the issue.

    “Information governance can be thought of as boring, almost discretionary. But it can contribute to the way a business is valued and also gives legal protection,” Glazebrook explains. He says without a robust information governance process, the risk is the board won’t fully understand what the business’ assets are, and what its risk profile is. “If boards don’t understand how information is governed and the assets they have – physical and intellectual – they could face financial, legal or community backlash. Knowledge is power and by being aware of the information landscape it’s possible to make judgements about how to maintain the system.”

    Glazebrook says it’s important to remember that the board has a separate role to the executive when it comes to information governance. “It’s their role to help decide what to store and how to retrieve that information. They need to be across what to record and to help determine how to create a risk register, to help inform priorities around information management.”

    He says the idea is to approach information governance in bite-sized chunks, to make it manageable. “But it’s important to think ahead because the way information is stored changes. You need to think about a combination of soft and hard record- keeping systems to plan for that contingency.”

    So what is Raelene Webb’s advice to other businesses wanting to take a better approach to information governance? “It’s important not to put it off and it’s critical to get authority at the board level. It’s also important to persist if board members are not so tech savvy,” says Webb.

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