THE BLOG

The Power of Paper in an Age of Big Data

21/03/2014 11:49 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

A few years ago, Qinetiq, a leading defence company, built a small unmanned aircraft to take pictures of its hot air balloon record attempt. The engineer responsible for the airbag that would cushion the miniature aircraft on landing was so thrilled with his revolutionary design that he decided to submit it for patenting. All went well until a routine review of the company's paper archives revealed that a near identical design had been created in the 1950s by the engineer's grandfather.

It should never be difficult for you to access the knowledge stored within your company, preferably before you repeat work previously undertaken. Yet effective information management is still an issue for many organisations as a 2001 research paper from industry analyst IDC found, revealing knowledge workers can spend up to 90 per cent of their time recreating information that already exists in their organisation.

You need everyone in your company to manage their paper documents in such a way so that you know where to find them when you need them and understand how to extract the value from the information. However, for many firms this can be easier said than done.

This may be a situation you recognise: when many businesses keep their paper on site in the office, they often store it in an inappropriate environment such as a damp basement not suitable for long-term paper storage. You may have even experienced a situation where the one person who knew where certain documents were filed leaves, making it hard to find critical information at short notice. The reality with paper on site is that over time it is inclined to get lost, damaged or destroyed. Job changes, mergers and acquisitions, company restructurings and office moves can mean that vast volumes of information disappear or end up archived away and forgotten.

The Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo space missions in the 1960s and 70s was designed and built in great haste by a wide range of suppliers and engineers. Millions of documents were created including blueprints, designs, descriptions and test results. No-one ever pulled these all together into a single document repository for which one company or individual was responsible. Today, only fragments of the information can still be found. Many of those involved in its creation or use are long gone. If mankind wishes to return an astronaut to the moon, much of the knowledge would have to be recreated.

You yourself will hopefully not have to deal with quite such a dramatic scenario. But, faced with an ageing workforce, a younger generation of employees who change jobs with greater frequency, rapid product life-cycles and fluid supply chains; protecting information so its value is not lost is becoming a major challenge.

Where should your company start? First and foremost, you need make sure everyone knows how to protect information and don't just leave it up to the IT guy to sort out problems that arise when files go missing or work is lost. You then need your data to be future-friendly. This can be done by converting the most valuable paper information into digital formats that can be read ten or 20 years from now. Accept that you will not be able to keep everything, however much you think that half written document from 2006 will come in handy - you probably have a legal obligation to delete certain types of information after an agreed length of time. For the information you choose to keep, you need to make sure you have practices in place to make it easy to search for and retrieve, and to know how to extract the value from all your information.

The best innovations can come from looking at old data in a new way, so make sure yours is captured and safe. Your successors and their successors in turn will thank you for it.