How to Develop a Data Retention Policy

data retention policy

How to Develop a Data Retention Policy

by Steven Fiore

We help organizations implement a unified data governance solution that helps them manage and govern their on-premises, multi-cloud, and SaaS data. The data governance solution will always include a data retention policy.

When planning a data retention policy, you must be relentless in asking the right questions that will guide your team toward actionable and measurable results. By approaching data retention policies as part of the unified data governance effort, you can easily create a holistic, up-to-date approach to data retention and disposal. 

Ideally any group that creates, uses, or disposes of data in any way will be involved in data planning. Field workers collecting data, back-office workers processing it, IT staff responsible for transmitting and destroying it, Legal, HR, Public Relations, Security (cyber and physical) and anyone in between that has a stake in the data should be involved in planning data retention and disposal.

The first step is to understand what data you have today. Thanks to decades of organizational silos, many organizations don’t understand all the data they have amassed. Conducting a data inventory or unified data discovery is a critical first step.  

Next, you need to understand the requirements of the applicable regulation or regulations in your industry and geographical region so that your data planning and retention policy addresses compliance requirements. No matter your organization’s values, compliance is required and needs to be understood.

Then, businesses should identify where data retention may be costing the business or introducing risk. Understanding the risk and inefficiencies in current data processes may help identify what should be retained and for how long, and how to dispose of the data when the retention expires.

If the goal is to increase revenue or contribute to social goals, then you must understand which data affords that possibility, and how much data you need to make the analysis worthwhile. Machine Learning requires massive amounts of data over extended periods of time to increase the accuracy of the learning, so if machine learning and artificial intelligence outcomes are key to your revenue opportunity, you will require more data than you would need to use traditional Business Intelligence for dashboards and decision making.

data retention policy

What types of data should be included in the data retention policy?

The types of data included in the data retention policy will depend on the goals of the business. Businesses need to be thoughtful about what data they don’t need to include in their policies. Retaining and managing unneeded data costs organizations time and money – so identifying the data that can be disposed of is important and too often overlooked.

Businesses should consider which innovation technologies are included in their digital roadmap. If machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, and/or intelligent process automation are in your technology roadmap, you will want a strategy for data retention and disposal that will feed the learning models when you are ready to build them.  Machine learning could influence data retention policies, Internet of Things can impact what data is included since it tends to create enormous amounts of data. Robotic or Intelligent Process Automation is another example where understanding which data is most essential to highly repeatable processes could dictate what data is held and for how long.

One final note is considering non-traditional data sources and if they should be included. Do voice mails or meeting recordings need to be included? What about pictures that may be stored along with documents? Security camera footage? IoT or server logs? Metadata? Audit trails? The list goes on, and the earlier these types of data are considered, the easier they will be to manage.

Avoid these pitfalls

The paradox is that the two biggest mistakes organizations make when building a data retention policy are either not taking enough time to plan or taking too much time to plan. Spending too much time planning can lead to analysis paralysis letting a data catastrophe occur before a solution can be implemented. One way to mitigate this risk is to take an iterative approach so you can learn from small issues before they become big ones.

A typical misstep by organizations when building a data retention policy is that they don’t understand their objectives from the onset. Organizations need to start by clearly stating the goals of their data policy, and then build a policy that supports those goals. We talked about the link between company goals and data policies here.

One other major pitfall organizations fall into when building a data retention policy is that they don’t understand their data, where it lives, and how its interrelated. Keeping data unnecessarily is as bad as disposing of data you need – and in highly silo-ed organizations, data interdependencies might not surface until needed data is suddenly missing or data that should have been disposed of surfaces in a legal discovery. This is partially mitigated by bringing the right people to the planning process so that you can understand the full picture of data implications in your organization.

In closing

The future of enterprise effectiveness is driven by advanced data analytics and insights. Businesses of all sizes are including data strategies in their digital transformation roadmap, which must include data governance, data management, business planning and analysis, and intelligent forecasting. Understand your business goals and values, and then build the data retention policies that are right for you.

We are here to help.

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