Managing Structured & Unstructured Data: Knowledge or Noise?

Structured Vs Unstructured (1)Unstructured data present both a compliance risk and a missed opportunity for growing organisational knowledge and operational success.

How can a document management system bring the noise under control, make the knowledge accessible, and deliver a sustained competitive advantage?

Structured Vs unstructured data. What’s the difference?

Structured data is usually found in relational databases. It is highly organised, formatted and easily searchable. But it represents only a small fraction of the data that businesses generate and manage every day. Unstructured and semi-structured data, on the other hand, is everything else we produce. It is all the data and information stored in a myriad of formats across your business systems. It is found in Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, CAD files, emails, Instant Messages, videos, audio recordings, streamed data, and countless other outputs generated by all the software and devices we use.

Unstructured data is obviously more difficult for businesses to index, aggregate. locate and analyse than the formatted structured information contained in databases. And this is a problem as it often contains vital ‘organisational knowledge’.

The fragmentation of information across platforms and a lack of taxonomies for these sprawling stores of knowledge, can render them inaccessible and unreadable for many in a business. In the end, this can result in poor quality decision making and quality system failures that can impact your success.

The risk of relying on unstructured data

Typical issues around the presence and use of unstructured data as part of your daily business management include:

  • Not being able to find crucial feedback and data to support decision making when needed
  • Not being able to prove why and how decisions were made
  • Key data being ignored and overlooked at pivotal commercial moments
  • The proliferation of irrelevant documentation slowing down systems and processes

Unstructured data. Knowledge or Noise?

Estimates say that between 80% and 90% of all enterprise data is unstructured data, and its presence in our systems is increasing at the rate of 60% a year. As businesses continue to drive innovation through different collaboration tools - and new information formats emerge - there is a greater spread of knowledge and noise in internal digital systems than ever before.

“In the last two years 90% of the world's data has been created. 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced by humans every day” (source: TechJury)

It’s a fair bet that at least some of those bytes, and many of those bytes you are responsible for, are irrelevant and surplus to requirements. But much of the data you are generating are vital to the smooth running of your business.

Because of this, it’s not enough that this data is stored, it’s got to be organised, governed, controlled and analysed if it’s going to help you protect and add value to your company.

After all, only when you have oversight and control over your documents and data can you properly understand and deploy it, to ensure the quality of your processes and win continual improvements in performance.

Here are 4 ways a document management system can bring your unstructured data under control


How do you organise unstructured information so your business users can identify, manage, and control it?

When it comes to building quality management systems or managing complex, collaborative development processes choosing a Document Management System as your ‘single source of truth’ - will mean documents (no matter their format) are uploaded in a defined way. This will ensure:

  • Their contents are properly described
  • They cannot be mislabeled or mislaid
  • They are searchable in granular ways

Choosing document management systems that help us define and categorise this data through metatags is crucial to this process. It’s important that companies can create custom metadata for their documents - customisation will make the categories more relevant to your business and ensure people actually use them when adding documents to your system. There’s lots of great advice about using enterprise search technology here.

2. Record

Using a single DMS as the way you share drafts, channel feedback and control approvals is a major way in which potentially unstructured data can become part of the fabric and structure of your record keeping. Marking up documents directly in a DMS or giving them the ‘green light’ with a digital signature - can instantly capture important information:

  • Date and time of an approval
  • The identity of the approver,
  • The ‘meaning of a signature’

All in an indelible and trackable way.

Attempting to do this via an email or a note on a Google Doc, on the other hand, risks losing all the important information you might need to prove compliance later, in a mass of unstructured data hidden in various documents.

3. Govern and manage

What are the tools required to make the data available, accessible and reliable? A good document management system will allow you to control access and the ability to change documents, as well the data within them. With the proliferation of document formats involved, you need the ability to lock documents down for editing to ensure their integrity. You also need the ability to deliver them up in a readable format for readers who don’t have access to specialist software (such as is needed to read CAD files). A good DMS will help you control all of the lifecycle phases for the unstructured data you generate covering:

  • Creation
  • Revision
  • Approval
  • Protection
  • Retention
  • Destruction

With this kind of control, systems can be more easily decluttered of irrelevant data and key pieces of unstructured data fundamental to the functioning of your business can remain accessible, searchable and auditable.

4. Analyse

Finally, how can companies harness this unstructured data and use it to drive their analysis and decision making? Metadata plays a key role here. It is vital to the preparation of ‘big picture’ business reporting. It can show how each document and the data within a system relates to other documents and data - as well as the way data is changing and being updated. These details can then be visualised and analysed in dashboards - improving a company’s understanding of their information management requirements. There are more ways a modern DMS can unleash the power of unstructured data. It can show how key processes are working, dates at which compliance reviews are needed, as well as who has reviewed them in the past, when and with what result. All this can be controlled and visualised within a DMS to improve efficiencies, reduce risk and inform strategy going forward.

How a DMS brings structure to the chaos

Having control over the contents and lifecycle of every document within your operational and quality systems  gives you the ability to manage business critical data in all its formats.

A good DMS helps discern what’s noise and what’s knowledge within your system. It helps you declutter file storage systems while making key data more structured, accessible and understandable for a business.  Even as the amount of data we are generating continues to increase.

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Tags: ISO 9001:2015, Document Management and Control

Joe Byrne

Written by Joe Byrne

Joe Byrne is the CEO of Cognidox. With a career spanning medical device start-ups and fortune 500 companies, Joe has over 25 years of experience in the medical device and high-tech product development industries. With extensive experience in scaling businesses, process improvement, quality, medical devices and product development, Joe is a regular contributor to the Cognidox DMS Insights blog where he shares expertise on scaling and streamlining the entire product development cycle, empowering enterprises to achieve governance, compliance, and rigour.

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