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

7 minute read
David Lavenda avatar

How 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.

Learning Opportunities

But it’s the explicit forms of metadata that can provide the big value. These metadata types are typically manually assigned to documents. For example, metadata such as topic, project name, customer name, security classification and duration of a document’s lifespan can all be used to help catalog documents accurately so they can be found quickly later on.

When constructed properly, even a small number of metadata can make it easy to locate documents (as well as pictures, videos and webpages), even in enormously large digital archives. And that’s important, because these objects are becoming part of our daily work arsenal.

But how do you get people to properly define metadata so documents can be found later on?Here are some practical suggestions for making the most of metadata.

  • Automatically assign metadata values -- some systems allow you to automatically assign metadata values when you store a document in a specific location.Use this capability to reduce the classification workload.
  • Use required metadata -- make it mandatory for people to specify data before a document can be checked-in to your document management system.
  • Define a simple set of metadata -- whether you decide to implement a rigid taxonomy or a loose folksonomy, get all the necessary constituents to participate in the process.Resist scope creep and keep it simple. The more complex the set of data choices becomes, the less likely people will know what to do. Keep the number of metadata objects small. If someone has to specify more than two or three values for each document, they won’t do it.
  • Educate the workforce about the business value -- if employees understand the value of specifying metadata, they will be more likely to "play ball." If the project becomes perceived as just another IT initiative, workers will resist.
  • Train your people -- what seems obvious to you won’t be obvious to the multitude of workers who actually need to specify the metadata. Investing in training and support will go a long way to making the project a success.
  • Make it easy -- invest in the user experience -- if the process of defining metadata becomes a nine-step process, you can forget about getting people to comply, regardless of how important they perceive the task.Introduce tools that prompt users to specify required metadata before documents can be checked in.Use workflow tools that automate metadata definition steps.And make it easy for people to search using metadata -- the faster they find documents, the higher the likelihood workers will spend the time to define metadata in the first place.

Metadata in the Mobile Enterprise

Finding information is hard enough when you are at your desk, but it has taken on a new dimension in the mobile enterprise. As workers untether from their desks and take their work on the road, people now need to find information from their iPads and smartphones -- while they are at a customer site, at a conference, or while they are preparing a proposal in an airport lounge.

Mobile metadata can be especially helpful here.Because while finding information is important everywhere, it can be especially essential in work-critical situations on the road.It’s nice to know that your mobile device can actually help you find information -- through technology built into mobile devices can be used to automatically classify information, and hence find it later on.Stay tuned for more on this in my next post.

Title image by vita khorzhevska (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from David in The Changing Role of IT in a Technology World Full of Choice

About the author

David Lavenda

David is a product expert with extensive experience leading information-intensive technology organizations. His specialty is helping organizations “do it right the first time”— get to market quickly and successfully through a structured process of working closely with design partners from day one.