Trend: The New Rules of Information Management

Get a Grip

If Ron Elkins were to tell you where the architectural drawings for the City of Dallas’ water treatment plants are hidden, he’d have to kill you.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, any number of documents that were once considered trivial, and thus not worthy of any special safeguards, have suddenly become top-secret because they provide information about potential soft targets. That’s why Elkins, who is Dallas’s senior manager of eGovernment and information delivery services, is piecing together a plan to place the water facility blueprints, as well as information related to air monitoring systems and biochemical protection schemes, into stringently restricted, encrypted databanks with multiple layers of security. Down the road, if the costs work out, biometric logins may be required.

“I can’t talk about where these programs are, or how they operate,” says Elkins. “Satisfying Homeland Security requirements has become a big part of my role here.”

That’s not the only thing he’s paying a lot of attention to. Elkins is also overseeing a $10 million-plus reorganization of the public and private records maintained by the city that will store in digital format scads of paper documents, images, drawings, video and audio content. Separately, Elkins is building a master-data warehouse with a central repository, which can be tapped via computerized dashboards, or through other reporting functions, by any of the 38 government departments that have clearance. And he is leading the effort to modernize the city’s antiquated financial and billing processes, and integrate them with a customer relationship management program. With all of this, Dallas hopes to enjoy 30 percent to 50 percent productivity improvements over the next five years.

To illustrate how these systems work, imagine a water-main break. Currently, disaster crews must search City Hall for records that are frequently filed haphazardly. Once the blueprints are found, the workers take them to the site and, after going over the documents manually, put together a plan of action. Often, lots of time is wasted before the problem is fixed. But when the new system is completed, blueprints will be delivered via wireless technology to the laptops of workers in the field, who will be able to magnify or highlight certain areas to quickly produce a response. This could cut hours off the time it takes to respond to an emergency.

Much of the impetus for this vast new undertaking comes from a series of recent federal, state and judicial regulations for storing, indexing and accessing records that left Dallas—and many other cities—out of compliance. “A year and a half ago, more than half of my current job didn’t exist,” Elkins says. “Now my job is focused on managing the huge amount of information we have in a way that matches the strategic goals of the city. Technology cannot be just tactical anymore; it’s a strategic function.”

The transformation in Dallas is part of a trend that is fundamentally altering the role of information technology in both the public and private sectors. After decades of lip service about linking technology to the profit-and-loss side of organizations, the sprouting of so-called information governance programs—also known as data or IT governance—is forging a kinship between IT departments and business-unit executives that was impossible to envision just a few years ago. These programs strive to ensure that IT initiatives are developed and managed to dovetail with the organization’s core business strategies, and that there are unambiguous rules for the creation, collection, handling and protection of information. Simply put, the objective is to make information available, transparent and useful to the people authorized to access it, from the moment the data enters an organization’s network, to when it is outdated and stored.

“Information and information technology alone cannot enhance productivity,” says Andy Shotz, president of Project In-Vision International, a Novato, Calif.-based business process management software company. “There must be a solid framework for controlling information that meshes with the company’s policies.”

A recent CIO Insight survey on information governance underscores the growing influence of this new approach to data management. Slightly more than half of respondents said their companies have information governance processes in place, and about two-thirds of those said that these programs were highly effective. Among the top organizational priorities tackled by information governance? Security and privacy, data access and usage rights, and strategic uses of information.

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