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The digital universe is set to reach 44 zettabytes in 2020, according to the World Economic Forum.
A single organization owns only a tiny sliver of that total amount, but most organizations still struggle to understand the volume of data they have, what exactly they have and where it's all stored. It all raises questions about how much potential value this data creates versus the amount of risk it generates.
These risks can be severe: Experian's 2019 global data management report, "Taking control in the digital age," found that "95% of organizations see negative impacts from poor data quality, resulting in wasted resources and additional costs, ineffective business initiatives, poor customer experience, delayed data migration projects and much more."
Given the consequences of poor data visibility, CISOs, CIOs, data officers and other enterprise executives need a better understanding of their data. This requires developing an effective management strategy to ensure they know what data they have, how it should be handled and how it can be used to benefit competitive business objectives.
The volume of data being created is certainly a contributing factor, data experts said in recent interviews. But they also pointed to other factors leading to organizations' overall lack of visibility into their data.
It often starts with how organizations handle data: Many still have data stored in silos, with unstructured and structured data on premises, in the cloud and even in systems owned and controlled by providers and partners.
"Data lends itself very well to disorganization, and that's the fundamental challenge," Nilesh Chandra, PA Consulting Group partner and leader of its business transformation and growth strategy work.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that many organizations still don't have a single position with full accountability for data stewardship, Chandra added.
Data visibility defined
Chandra and other data experts said enterprise leaders need to identify where they hold what data to achieve true data visibility critical to advance data analytics programs, as well as comply with data privacy regulations.
Organizational leaders' ability to know and understand the data the enterprise has is only one way of thinking about data visibility. Data visibility is also about making the right data available to the right users at the right time, said Bart Willemsen, Gartner vice president and analyst focusing on privacy compliance and risk management.
Poor data visibility can make safeguarding data and complying with privacy laws infinitely more difficult, experts said. In fact, poor data visibility could lead to an organization unwittingly exposing data or making it noncompliant with regulations, Chandra said.
Limited data visibility can also hinder an organization's ability to capitalize on data-driven opportunities, said Mike Vogt, executive director of data, analytics and machine learning at SPR, a digital tech consultancy.
Vogt stressed that organizations can only develop analytics programs or AI initiatives based on the data they know they have and can access. Thus, organizations with poor data visibility are likely to miss opportunities to advance such programs.
Nilesh ChandraPA Consulting Group
"Data is a source of competitive advantage, and many organizations don't get the value they could out of it," Chandra added.
Limited data visibility also influences the financial health of an organization, Willemsen said, not only because of higher data storage costs from keeping redundant or unnecessary information, but also lost business opportunities or compliance risks.
"The value of a record can also be negative," he added, such as if an organization holds onto sensitive data that serves no business purpose and could be deleted.
Steps to improve visibility
Executives who want to gain more insight into their data should create a single point of accountability for the task, experts said, adding that they then need to assess and inventory their data; develop processes to delete redundant or obsolete data; and secure data based on risk.
Chandra acknowledged that data management is not an easy task.
"Most organizations still struggle with data governance," he said.
Experts explained that a good data governance program needs to consider how the people, process, technology and culture should work together to create a system that enables the enterprise to see and understand what data it has where and what rules should then apply to the various data points.
But Benjamin Wright, an attorney focusing on technology law and senior instructor at the SANS Institute, said organizations should also be practical in their data management program.
"As organizations think about visibility, they're also wise not to jump overboard and go too deep to discover where every little tidbit of information exists," he said. "The degree to which they'll expend resources needs to be balanced with practicality and proportionality. It boils down to a risk assessment."
Risk will often determine how much visibility they need to have into the data, Wright said. For example, he said organizations can worry less about knowing and securing data on backup tapes stored offline than data accessible through the internet.
"Visibility is an issue," he said, "but the amount of visibility needed and the degree of visibility needed should be driven by risk. If there's a lower risk, you need to spend fewer resources. If it's a higher risk, you need to spend more."