To Delete Or Not To Delete — That Is The Question

Originally published on 3/28/18 at Forbes.

There seems to be confusion in corporate America about whether or not to delete data. On one hand, there are legal departments that advise keeping everything forever, and on the other are those that recommend deleting everything as a matter of policy as soon as possible — whacking away at files and folders on your file servers like a drunk landscaper whirling a weed whacker around your yard. Meanwhile, IT is stuck in the middle trying to develop and engineer systems to enforce ever-changing data retention policies. 

With a rash of security breaches and companies getting slapped with huge fines for mismanaging data during legal investigations, for some, the only reasonable thing to do is delete all data. The view taken by some is that if there’s no data, then it can’t be stolen and won’t available for evidence in a lawsuit. Unfortunately, this is rarely true and likely to cost a lot more in the long run.

Data Is A Corporate Asset

So what is all this data they want you to delete? It’s everything. It’s email, Word, Powerpoint and Excel documents, sales data, accounting, market data, personnel files, pictures, videos, utility bills, cloud services, phone activity, website data — everything.

How you collect, manage and use that data is vital to the success of your business. It will determine your costs, liabilities, exposure, profits and ability to be competitive. Data is being generated every day, every minute, every second. You’ve been generating it for years and it’s growing fast.

In fact, data growth in the “digital universe” will be over 44 trillion gigabytes in just two years. What’s more, over 780 billion text messages are sent each month, over 210 billion emails are sent every day and there are more than 883 petabytes of internet video surveillance traffic sent per month, and that doesn’t include YouTube, Netflix or any other kind of video traffic.

All that data allows you to make better business decisions by using business analytics, creating models and discovering emergent properties within a system to enhance business growth. Data is the cheapest the first time it’s generated. The costs of data increase the further away you get from its point of origin.

Also, keep in mind that the value of your organization’s data is extremely high. This is the specific data that’s unique and proprietary to your company and provides the competitive advantage that no one else has access to. Once the data is gone, it’s usually gone forever or exceedingly expensive and difficult to reclaim.

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that data is going to keep growing. Data drives business and the data needs to be managed. With big data initiatives, machine learning and artificial intelligence driving business forward, finding better ways to store and manage your data is what you should be thinking of instead of deleting it.

Managing And Protecting Your Data Assets 

The truth of the matter is that data management is critical to all companies no matter how much data you have. All company data is a business asset and should be managed according to your organizations business needs and legal strategy.

Reactively and haphazardly deleting data is akin to applying weed killer in your garden with a blindfold on. You’ll spread it onto some of the weeds, but odds are you’re going to get it all over your tomatoes too. You’ll probably destroy a lot of your produce and maybe poison yourself in the process.

By managing your data well, you lower business and operational costs, reduce legal costs and exposure, create new business opportunities, increase revenue, learn from lessons of the past and provide the ammunition to make better business decisions.

There are many aspects of data management, including policies, procedures, data classification, data retention, litigation readiness, data access, security and more. All these activities fall into one of four basic aspects of data management that enable your company to grow with data instead of being encumbered by it:

  1. Data capture, which involves generating and acquiring data.
  2. Data storage, which is for every day and archival use.
  3. Data utilization, which focuses on analytics, synthesis, reporting, forecasting, communicating, etc.
  4. Data protection, which provides you with backups and security.

Assessing Risk

The view that you should delete data comes from the belief that keeping data is risky, expensive and difficult to do. Let’s take a look.

  • It’s risky. Every company should have good processes, procedures, training and technology in place for all of its data. So long as that’s in place, maintaining more data is no more or less risky than maintaining less data.
  • It’s expensive. The costs of data storage are going down every year. For hard drives, they’ve gone from $277 per gigabyte in 1995 to $0.02 in 2017. For tape, it’s even cheaper, costing just $0.0089 per gigabyte in 2016.
  • It’s difficult. I don’t know what to say here. If your job is too difficult, maybe it’s time to find another line of work. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. In fact, that’s when the work becomes most interesting.

There is great value in data and can be a tremendous advantage if managed and utilized well. If it’s not, then it will become a huge impediment for your business.

Do you have thoughts that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

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About Brian Greenberg

Brian Greenberg is a Partner at Fortium Partners where he helps organizations by providing executive technology leadership on an as-needed basis by being a companies interim or fractional CIO or CTO. Brian is a Forbes contributor and is a member of the Forbes Technology Council. He is a Chicago resident and has been working at companies of all sizes from the Fortune 100 to startups for nearly 30 years, including international experience and an expatriate in Japan. Brian has expertise in digital transformation, automation, turnaround management, security, and data protection. He is also a storyteller and an improvisor in Chicago’s comedy community.