July 5, 2010 — In the 1980s, commercial database producers had an editorial policy. I recall reading the Courier Journal / Data Courier description of the editorial policy for the original ABI/INFORM business database. (Disclosure: Access Innovations was an advisor to the Courier Journal’s commercial database operation.) The idea was that subject matter experts and the editors working on the product selected sources. In 1981, the sources were business publications and journals that published original, significant articles, essays, and research. Along with publications like the Harvard Business Review, the editors included a unique and useful publication called Advanced Management Report produced by a little known but highly respected publisher in the UK. I think the company was ANBAR at the time.

The point is that there were guidelines for what information would be used as raw material for the abstracts of business information. Subject matter experts then selected articles of note, summarized them, and indexed them with human and automated methods. Over time, the ABI/INFORM editorial policy segmented publications into “core” and “non-core” journals. The idea was that the principal stories and essays in such publications as Business Horizons would be included as part of the standard editorial process. The “non-core” journals’ content would be reviewed and included if of merit.

The editorial policy further spelled out:

  • The topics that would be covered in the database; for example, accounting, marketing, information technology, etc.
  • The way in which the abstracts would be indexed; for example, business classification code, six to eight controlled vocabulary terms per abstract, company name, geographic region, etc.
  • The flow of content into the database, which in the 1980s was about 3,000 abstracts per month or about 100 records per day
  • The frequency of updates, which in the 1980s was weekly and then by the mid-1980s was daily
  • The vendors distributing the content. In its glory days, the ABI/INFORM database was available on most major online systems, including Dialog Information Services, LexisNexis, and the European Space Agency’s system, among others.

The idea was that a person looking for business information about management and business practices knew what was in the file, how the records were selected, what the sources of the information were, and the freshness of the database.

Other database producers followed on the heels of ABI/INFORM, which in the 1980s was one of the pacesetters along with databases my colleagues and I produced here at Access Innovations, Chemical Abstracts, and the original Disclosure, PTS Promt, and a handful of other high traffic, high profile information resources.

Flash forward 30 years. Now I read about information governance. In my opinion, organizations have believed that they were “information companies” and in “the information business.” Banks and even outfits like Federal Express emphasize the importance of information. That “information” runs their business.

We agree. But the problem many organizations face is one similar to a jet pilot who has to repair an engine when the fighter is roaring along at Mach One. The challenge is a formidable one. The surge of interest in “content governance” and “information policies” are efforts to put in place the type of conceptual frameworks that were known to the original creators of successful electronic information products. Today Google returned more than 100,000 links to Web pages with the phrase “content governance” on them. A search for “information governance” allowed Google to generate more than 500,000 links. These range from Wikipedia’s “Information Governance” entry with a woeful 59 words to a consulting firm’s news release with more than 1,000 words.

We think more must be done to tackle the problem that was once tagged “editorial policy”. In our view, organizations should consider:

  1. Defining what the rules are for the information that must be findable
  2. Answering the question about who does what, by what means, and on what schedule
  3. Creating meaningful term lists and methods for assigning appropriate, accurate metadata to information objects
  4. Formulating the “rules of the road” for information either from the bottom up (working group) or from the top down (bright white lines in a regulated industry) and then matching what’s needed with business processes
  5. Communicating with professionals who are creating content about needs, expectations, and methods
  6. Aligning software systems to match the “rules of the road”, which is not an easy task because some systems have hardwired methods or are expensive to get “to play nicely with others”
  7. Bird-dogging to make sure reality matches the expectations.

I could extend this list but I think you can see that there is a combination of issues. These interact. These change over time.

The interest in information governance and content governance is long overdue. With information now the nervous system of most organizations, we applaud today’s companies embracing what their predecessors pioneered decades ago.

Margie Hlava

Margie Hlava
President, Access Innovations