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Metadata: An Underappreciated Yet Vital Ingredient of Every ECM Strategy

information governance and data security

In the realm of content management, metadata is truly an unsung hero. When businesses implement enterprise content management (ECM) applications and services into their technology ecosystem, the first step is discovering how processes are done in their organization in the present day. If metadata on their content is not already in place, that task can be harrowing.

Leaders are left trying to figure out how to implement a better system. They want their new ECM to solve for a variety of pain points. In their analysis of different solutions, they might try to decipher:

  • How the ECM will make their employees more productive and accelerate the process of finding the documents and records they need to get work done
  • The ways they can apply workflow routing and digital approvals to mirror real-world processes
  • How their ECM solution will manage document security and record permissions to ensure only those with permissions are enabled to view, edit, delete, or find content
  • How they can apply analytics and generate reports on how much content is created, how long records need to be retained, and who in the organization is most or least active in the digital libraries.

You might say metadata is to ECM as Alfred Pennyworth is to Batman. Just as Alfred manages Wayne Manor and all Batman’s non-crime fighting affairs, metadata enables most of the business benefits above (and others), yet gets so little credit. ISO defines metadata as:

“Data describing context, content, and structure of records and their management through time.”

Let’s take a look at three metadata characteristics, which make metadata vital to any organization’s success, be it a government agency, law firm, insurance company, healthcare institution, or otherwise. By standardizing metadata with these characteristics in mind, ECM initiatives have a far greater chance of succeeding.

1. Discoverability

For files like Word documents and PDFs which have been processed with an OCR engine, full-text indexing does an excellent job of making documents “findable.” Yet with raw scanned documents, or images which were “born digital,” metadata is critical to bringing important files to light when they are needed.

Many organizations automate (either during the document creation, capture, or filing stages of the information lifecycle) as much metadata creation as possible such as file numbers, author name, and permissions. Yet having a well-documented, effectively communicated metadata standard is beneficial for users, administrators, and information management executives alike. Just as internet search engines find websites with keyword rich meta titles, tags, and descriptions, ECM systems rely on keyword rich filenames, descriptions, and context-specific data.

2. Control

Access control and digital rights management are especially important in regulated industries and organizations which handle a great deal of personal information such as patient data, case files, and government forms.Access control can enable a more secure way to share sensitive information with some of the following controls:

  • Allowing or denying individuals or groups the ability to find a document
  • Enabling or denying a user to view, edit, or delete a document, its contents, or its metadata
  • Allowing or denying a user to see the entirety of a document including annotations, with or without redacted information
  • Defining how long a record will be kept before being deleted or destroyed

In addition, profiling a record or document with metadata can help users understand how it should be used. It can help employees understand whether a document can be printed, shared outside the organization, or deleted.

3. Navigation

In today’s fast-moving digital age, most people are primarily concerned with accessing content which has context to their job, goals, and priorities. Content personalization has come a long way on websites and online stores, in large part because of the metadata which is applied to content as it is generated. For documents and records, metadata can help users in different roles to find the same file, but in context with their role. When standard metadata fields are associated with files, users will become accustomed to the most effective search terms to apply to their files as they create and file them.

A salesperson may search for a record by company name, while a finance employee might be more effective finding that same customer by their account number. In addition, two lawyers might search for case precedents, while the metadata fields can identify cases which could create conflicts for one attorney, so denying that attorney from seeing that matter is often best.

As documents or records age, their metadata may change as time goes by, or companies may choose to lock metadata down. In either case, users can be spared wading through thousands of files that aren’t important to them and navigate to what matters.