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Don't Let Information Debt Drag Your Digital Transformation Down

April 02, 2021 Information Management
Laurence Hart
By Laurence Hart

We've all heard about technical debt. Technical debt is the collection of technical work delayed by developers because the work isn't deemed critical or valuable to the task at hand. However, this debt needs to be managed and resolved before the bill comes due — and it always does.

Similarly, organizations also accumulate information debt. In the rush to digitally transform to grow or simply survive, organizations create new systems to store information, often leaving older systems behind.

The old information must be migrated, deleted, archived or otherwise moved to a desired location. Additionally, organizations often create newer systems without considering older information models. Those older models frequently reveal many hidden requirements. As with the assumption of technical debt, the decision to take on information debt is a balance of risk and the need for immediate progress.

What Do You Do With Old Information?

The question of how to manage information in an old system is usually met with two responses. The business wants to migrate all information to the new system. IT views it as obsolete and wants to leave it behind. Business over-values old information while IT sees in system logs how rarely the business accesses the information.

The truth lies in the middle. The business rarely needs old information, but when they do need it, having that information is vital. Having rapid access to old information when that vital need arises can sometimes pay for an entire migration effort. But there are no guarantees the organization will realize that value.

And that's the issue. Migrations are costly. The more complex the information model, the more time the migration takes to plan, test and execute. Some organizations will plan to only migrate the newest 20% of their information. Unfortunately that approach doesn't reduce costs by 80%, as the migration effort still requires the same amount of planning and testing.

One viable option is to archive the information in a way that is readily searchable. Archiving removes the tedious mapping between the old and new systems' information models. It also forces businesses to think about how they will need to retrieve information when a vital need does arise. Of course, many organizations plan to take this approach, decide to do it after the new system is running, and then never get to it.

Related Article: Content Migrations: 2 Problems and 2 Suggestions

Planning the New Information Model

When building a new system, a best practice is to only implement as much of the information model as the system currently needs. This provides flexibility in the future as the business discovers new use-cases to make changes. However, you still must completely design the new model at a high level, using all the use-cases that you can collect — including analysis of the old information model.

The old model is typically a wealth of knowledge. Even if you decide against a migration, the old information model provides insight into how the business uses information.

I'm not suggesting you copy the old model. Teams should analyze it to learn why the old elements are in place. The analysis will help you make informed decisions about whether or not to use certain elements in future iterations of the new system. If so, it is important to add these elements to the model early on. Otherwise early versions of the new system may create technical debt that prevents the organization from effectively adding future capabilities leveraging those information elements.

Related Article: Poor Information Architecture Is Hurting Your Business

Make a Plan for Your Information Debt and Keep to It

If you decide to take on information debt, make sure it's an informed decision. Don't base it solely on the desire to move fast, hoping the team will deal with it later. Experience shows that information debt will sit untouched until a need arises for that old information. At which point, you don't have the time to properly work through the debt and technical debt is accumulated to bridge the gap.

Too often, even after an organization makes a plan to deal with information debt, they postpone the work. There is always a new feature that seems more important. This continues until, once again, that rare vital need arises. Taking on information debt is OK as long as organizations make informed decisions about managing and tracking the debt over time.

Digital transformation can provide great value when done properly. Don't let unmanaged information debt undo that value over time.

About the Author

Laurence Hart is a director of consulting services at CGI Federal, with a focus on leading digital transformation efforts that drive his clients’ success. A proven leader in content management and information governance, Laurence has over two decades of experience solving the challenges organizations face as they implement and deploy information solutions.

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