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The five commandments of content governance policies

Getting your content governance house in order starts with treating your information as an asset -- just as you would your revenue-generating resources.

The term content governance, and others like it, is so often bandied about, the issue can take on the trappings...

of a religious movement -- right up to and including the existence of caterwauling crusaders who blindly preach rigid doctrine on how to take control of one's information.

Although I firmly believe in the whole governance "thing," I am not a fan of slavish obedience to dogma because too many cultural and operational differences exist between organizations for there to be one single truth.

Having said that, though, I do believe that five commandments, when followed, can bring considerable earthly benefit:

1. Thou shalt treat information as an asset

Whether you acknowledge it or not, information lies at the heart of everything your organization does. Information drives decisions, and whether these decisions are good or bad often depends upon the quality of the information at hand.

Therefore, maintaining high-quality information is fundamental to an organization's success, and the best way to accomplish this is to propagate a commitment to content governance up and down the organizational chart -- "from the boardroom to the mailroom," as it is said. The idea is to ensure that information is consistently treated as an asset throughout the enterprise, paying particular attention to how it's created, updated, tracked, protected, shared and disposed of.

2. Thou shalt control access

Many organizations use shared drives extensively to facilitate the sharing of their content -- and sometimes it works so well that their information ends up in places like competitors' inboxes and on social media.

Contrary to one popular belief, countering this isn't a function of locking down everything tightly -- all that does is deny people entry to much of what they need to do their jobs. Instead, consider clearly defining people's roles so you can effectively match their access permissions to their information requirements. Whether managed through the content system or a company directory service (e.g., LDAP), this is a great way to ensure everyone sees what they're supposed to and no one sees what they're not.

3. Thou shalt apply metadata

"Seek, and ye shall find" may be a notable Biblical exhortation, but for many organizations its fulfillment is not yet a practical reality. In most cases, the reason is that information is stored in siloes throughout the enterprise, and the owners of those siloes use different vocabularies to describe what each bit of content is -- if, indeed, any description is present.

Fixing this means making sure a certain minimum number of descriptors is applied to each item. In information management terms, this is what lies at the heart of metadata management, and it is key to enabling enterprise search and find. Good content and records management systems have this at their core, and even email systems and shared drives support some measure of the capability. But none of it is worth anything if people aren't trained/indoctrinated/browbeaten to use it properly and consistently, and so, often, they simply don't.

4. Thou shalt mandate retention and destruction

If having information is good, then having more of it must be better, right? Wrong! Letting content accumulate makes search/find/management that much more challenging and expensive, and it can represent a legal liability because anything hanging around is potentially discoverable in the event of a lawsuit.

The answer, then, is to mandate how long your information has to be kept, how to dispose of it when the time comes -- and then, to actually get rid of it. The specifics of such a schedule, of course, depend on the kind of content it is, the rules and regulations of the industry in which you reside, and even on your own internal best practices. But it has to be done. And don't forget to maintain a record of how and when your records were destroyed.

5. Thou shalt enforce thy policies

For all the piety associated with observing the preceding four commandments, this fifth one may be worthy of the most devotion because people often consider a lack of enforcement to be a license to freestyle. As an example, just think about how much faster you'd drive if you didn't have to worry about a speeding citation.

Enforcing policies, however, doesn't mean you have to be heavy-handed. Investing in training, coaching and positive reinforcement will lay a solid foundation for compliance without the need for anyone to be a disciplinarian. But at the same time, drawing that line in the sand when dealing with especially "hard cases" is important so everyone in the organization knows you're serious about establishing your content governance rigor.

For sure, plenty of governance zealots are out there to go around. But you don't have to be one to achieve your content-related goals; instead, all you have to do is adhere to these commandments and you'll find your stairway to heaven to be much less steep than perhaps you thought it would be.

Next Steps

Are companies finally ready to make governance a priority?

Information management is the new agenda

Records managers' required skills are expanding

Records managers: Here's a reality check

This was last published in March 2015

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What do you think it takes to run a successful content governance policy?
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I can’t agree strongly enough with the third commandment. We’ve been working on establishing a core metadata model for the past several years, coupled with a strong educational effort regarding the importance of data quality, and we’re finally seeing the payoff. A good metadata management model has helped us pull together many of our assets from across business divisions, content types and delivery mechanisms, and has helped us provide better, more complete services to our customers.
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These five 'though shalts' are encouraging if more organizations would actually follow the governance behind them especially the last one about enforcing policies.
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Thanks, mcorum and CCL36744, for sharing your thoughts. They're connected too, in that whether it's applying metadata or simply not saving every stinkin' email that comes in, enforcement is really the key to any kind of sustained success. But no one wants to be "bad cop," so it usually goes unaddressed. And so much of all your hard work then goes unleveraged!
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