dataTen top tips to shine a light on dark data in retail sector – and find value in it.

John Culkin, director of information management at Crown Records Management, explains how businesses can gain by finally taking control of the great unknown. 

Just hearing the words ‘dark data’ can be enough for those in the retail sector to feel a little uneasy – but despite its rather menacing name there has never been a better time to tackle the phenomenon head on.

When you think of the recent explosion in data it’s hardly surprising that businesses worry about how dark data  – defined as ‘information assets that organisations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purposes’ – will affect them in future. So why are so few doing anything about it? Rather than shy away from the challenges ahead the big questions we need to be asking in retail are: how do you get dark data under control and how can you derive benefit from it?

The threats provided by an explosion in data are obvious. Businesses which don’t know what information they have or how to find it are opening themselves up to the possibility of a data breach and in danger of falling foul of data protection regulation as it continues to evolve. In retail the problem is particularly acute. The retail world is increasingly becoming smart or intelligent which means it produces a lot of data. And as the Internet of Things takes hold, there will be even more created as everyday objects gain network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.

Whether it is a fridge in a customer’s home automatically ordering milk from the local store when it starts to run low, a washing machine providing data for the service department or a printer reporting it is low on toner, the potential scenarios are endless. This will become an increasingly serious issue for retail managers, both in terms of how much the data costs to store and the inherent risks it contains. However, by finding and exposing the data and finding all the places it hides, easy gains can be realised, too. The bottom line is organisations need to know what dark data is and where it is. If you don’t understand it how can you possibly be in control of it, let alone realise value hidden in it?

The problem is that hiding dark data away seems to be not just planned but instinctive, as if it were down to human nature. People fill their attics and garages with ‘useful’ things that could be needed in the future. The corporate equivalent is when people say ‘keep the data just in case’. How much money around the world is wasted due to those few words? Perhaps data is being kept ‘in case it is needed in the future’ – assuming it can be found at the time of need, of course. Or because a company believes some unknown future insight can be found using future analytical technology.

Perhaps it is stored away out of a mistaken belief that keeping more data means a company is less likely to lose something. Or because a business believes data is like a rare book and its monetary and nostalgic value might increase. All of these misconceptions lead a hoarding of dark data which is unnecessary, not useful and inherently risky. Having a proper information management system in place to prevent the storage of too much dark data is crucial.


Top tips to prevent dark data accumulating – and then to derive benefit from it

  1. Understand what you want to achieve with the data. If no one analyses the data it can simply accumulate and remain unused.
  2. Don’t keep dead data. The temptation for retail has been to keep everything forever in the hope it will give some insight, usually through ‘big data’ analytics – but does this really work? Many of the data needs in retail concern current state of stock (logistics) and being able to react quickly to current trends (particularly in the fashion sector).  Simply having too much data for too long in an organisation can arguably slow this process down.
  3. Develop data management policies and continuous training for all staff. Including data on local drives, laptops, shared drives, removable devices and mobile devices.
  4. Understand the regulations. Do you know what data you can keep, and do you know for how long? Don’t keep it longer than necessary unless clear benefit can be derived from it.
  5. Don’t believe all data in enough volume is “Big Data” and therefore has value. Much of it will not be useful in big data projects, especially as it’s often unstructured and in various formats.
  6. Use File Level Analysis software. Analysing the content of data rather than just its creation and expiry date can help a business understand information content, type, size and location. Map data sources generated by internal systems or received from external sources – this is about documenting ‘where’ and ‘why’ the data lives and how it was derived.
  7. Implement an Information Governance programme. This should be supported by the most senior management levels and practiced every day.
  8. Talk and communicate with people. Not everything will be officially documented or known about. Work-arounds and short-term fixes often become routine in the business place, so make people aware of the impact of not being able to manage everyone’s data effectively – it affects everyone.

Only after taking these steps can business owners and retail managers begin to find, understand and derive benefit from data they previously looked on as nothing more than an expensive waste product – and reduce costs and risks but keeping less in the first place. Shining a light on dark data is just the start – but it’s a very good start.