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Nightmare definitions: What is Information Governance?

Some concepts are extremely difficult to articulate succinctly. Not because we don’t understand them, but because they are just too complex. I believe H.L. Mencken said: “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, elegant and wrong”.

Take the example of Enterprise Content Management. A 25-year old industry and a multi-million software market. Every few months, we will invariably have another debate on what the correct definition should be, what it encompasses, if the name should be changed, how it overlaps with other terms, etc. etc. Yet, most people understand pretty well what it is.

Enter… Information Governance

If you haven’t yet, please read Barclay T. Blair’s ebook: “Making the Case for Information Governance”. It is an excellent summary of some of the reasons why Information Governance (IG) is important to an organisation. The ebook focuses more on the rationale behind its existence, and much less on its structure and scope. The ebook also reviews some of the existing definitions of IG, by The Economist and by AIIM and proceeds to explain their salient points.

More recently however, BTB presented IG Initiative’s attempt to create a simpler definition, validated by a popularity poll and summarized in an attractive infographic:

Information Governance is: The activities and technologies that organizations employ to maximize the value of their information while minimizing associated risks and costs.

I have to be honest and say that I don’t like that definition. 99% of people would agree that “Fruit is nutritional, affordable and refreshing, and reduces health risks”. That may be a true statement, but it does not make it a good definition of what a fruit is! Ok, I am being facetious, but my point is: The broader the definition the less accurate it is and the less value it adds. The IG Initiative definition above, is both too wide (e.g. analytics and collaboration are used to maximise information value, but they are not in themselves IG tools), and incomplete (e.g. governance involves the people, not just activities and technologies; compliance is another key driver, alongside cost and risk). In my view, this definition, by itself, falls short.

I have to mention that several other people have attempted definitions of IG, and each one has its merits. The one offered by Wikipedia is not too bad, and there are others by Debra Logan at Gartner, IBM, and many other vendors.

Personally, I would err on the side of a slightly longer but more comprehensive definition, that combines the ones mentioned in the ebook and the new one by IG Initiative. Here is my offer:

Information Governance is a framework of people, principles, processes and tools, that defines why, when and how information is managed within an organisation, in order to maximise its value, fulfil obligations, reduce costs and reduce risk.

I would be very interested to hear your feedback on this.

Whichever definition you choose to use however, BTB makes a very valid point in his blog: “the definition you use is less important than having a common understanding among your IG team”. And you will probably need a lot more than 145 characters to achieve that!

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