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What the NSA Can Teach Us about Finding Documents: 6 Tips on Metadata

NSAmetadata.jpgHow come the NSA knows who I spoke to last Nov. 10 at 11 a.m. and for how long, yet I can’t find the phone number of a colleague I called last night?

It’s simple — metadata.

Six months ago, metadata was a word relegated to technology specialists. But since the recent NSA campaign, metadata has become part of the collective lexicon. It has appeared in headlines from the Guardian, USA Today, The New York Times, CNN and countless other media outlets.

CNN defines metadata narrowly as “information wireless carriers collect about where, when and to whom customers make phone calls. It doesn't include any recordings of the actual phone call itself.” But we know that metadata means a lot more than that.

Metadata has become a dirty word from the recent scandal. But those of us in the collaboration world see metadata in a positive light. To collaboration specialists, metadata means simply “data about data” or more specifically, data that provides information about something. And that means metadata is important because it enables us to catalog information so we can find it later on. Precisely the reason the NSA was so interested in metadata in the first place. In fact, Stanford researchers who recently studied call records found that it was “trivially [easy] to figure out the identity of a caller” from metadata — metadata that was automatically generated by the phone companies, without the callers’ knowledge. Researchers were able to find out where people worked, where they lived and a host of personal behaviors just from their calling patterns.

Regardless of where you come down on the legality and ethics of the NSA program, the constructive takeaway from all this publicity is the awareness it has created around the importance of cataloging information so it can found and used later on. So take advantage of the metadata hype to advance projects at work where metadata can play an important role: projects like records management, knowledge management, governance, compliance and audit-related initiatives.

Information Overload

We live in an age of information overload and it’s just getting worse. Besides the onslaught of messages pouring into our work email box every day, we have now have to plow through uninterrupted information flows made possible by Lync, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp and the many other tools that have found their way onto our phones, tablets and PCs.

And let’s not forget about documents. Besides email, most of us still rely primarily on documents to get our work done. Project plans, contracts, specifications, presentations, guidelines and compliance documents — these are just some of the important documents we deal with on a daily basis. And because we are rushed to complete our work tasks, we hastily file these documents in generic directories or worse, we store them as email attachments.

When we need these documents, it becomes a chore to find them. The truth is that finding documents consumes more of our time than most of us care to admit. A uSamp survey found that workers spend an average of 30 minutes per day searching for documents, and email is the first place they go to find them.

Metadata to the Rescue

Metadata is the answer to this document "treasure hunt," because judicious use of metadata can help us find information quickly. Just as the NSA discovered about our phone calls, we can learn a lot about documents without actually having to read them — which means we can find them quickly … if they are cataloged accurately. And isn’t that we need for discovery, audits, governance and compliance? 

Content management systems like SharePoint make it easy to associate metadata with documents. In fact, these systems automatically assign simple forms of document metadata, such as author, created date, last edited date, document size and version number.

 

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