The price of data

March 8, 2011

There seems to be a standard belief that keeping data is free. And I’m not talking about the so-called “big data” such as Google’s web caching activities, Walmart’s RFID warehousing activities, or NASA’s meteorological and astronomical surveys. I’m talking about  keeping old, poorly named excel files. Or a database of leads from 1995. Or unread email in your inbox. Or a gob of unfiled receipts on your desk. I’m talking about signing up for blog feeds you never read. Or newsletters to organizations that you’ve never actually attended. Or an subscription that you never catch up on. I’m talking about categorizing and itemizing and tracking every part and piece and component of everything in your life, only to stick it, unused, in the files with the previous year’s records. I’m talking about the old phone number for your best friend that you KNOW isn’t correct, but you can’t bring yourself to erase.

Data is not free. Clutter costs head space.

I’ve worked in many organizations that had a shared file system. The standard MO is this: everybody dumps their files in shared folder. At some point, users can’t find the stuff they dumped there, so they create a folder of their own (“John’s folder”) and instruct other people to never touch it unless asked. Soon everybody and every department has a folder. Some people have one folder under their department’s folder, and another one under in the main folder. Soon somebody get’s sick of it, and reorganizes it themselves (making everybody mad) or calls a general meeting in which everybody disagrees about the correct way to organize it.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs are some of the worst offenders. Each contact (or company, or lead)  in the program represents a possible or past sale. Which means that everybody is valuable, right? Nope! If you can’t find them, what good are they? Databases of leads that are 10 years old are worse then useless–if they weren’t there, you wouldn’t have to spend a second thinking about them. But since they are there, and there might be a spec of gold you could sift out, you keep them.

Data storage is nearly free–you can get massive amounts of storage for very little money. And this compounds the issue. “I might want to look at those pictures sometime.” “I really don’t know if I’ll ever listen to those audio books, but I’ll keep them in my library just in case.” “So what if we lost the prospect? Let’s hold on to the proposal files. We might need em’ again someday.” And none of this is bad–if well organized.

Don’t fall into the trap of associating data with value. Organized data can be valuable, if relevant. Data on its own is not.

You know the packrat whose garage is so full of stuff that you can’t walk in? I’ll let you in on a secret–the technology revolution has enabled thousands, tens of thousands, of secret packrats. People who keep their desk clean, but their computer desktop cluttered. Deleting old information is surprisingly liberating. Try it. You’ll like it.


One Response to “The price of data”

  1. H K Says:

    Very good post! Regarding businesses, there’s a dramatic difference in the operation of a cluttered vs. non-cluttered business. I’ve worked with businesses where conversations go like this: “uh…where is that very critical, important piece of paper that will either make or break our client relationship?” Because of clutter one of the businesses faced a huge lawsuit.
    Compare that to the business where everything is precisely where it should be and exactly in the same spot it was last time you looked (and junk is thrown away). I’ve received comments, “Wow, this place is effective!”

    “Data is not free. Clutter costs head space.” There is no truer time than now, of clutter costing head space. To me, there is a difference between paper clutter versus head space clutter. I was in a position in which there was too much information to remember – where stuff is, how it works, and when it’s supposed to be used. After several months of blood, sweat, and tears in documenting all that information into an easy to read binder, I noticed a drastic difference! All the excess junk in my mind was cleared out. After that our business has made dramatic improvements in numerous areas simply due to the increased capacity in my mind.

    Bit of feedback for you, Michael: This affects the emotional elephant! Next time expand more on the ‘why’ and perhaps cut down on descriptions.
    Your self development reflects through your posts!

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