Is your organization's data working for you? If you're not sure, it might be time to take a closer look at your unstructured data. Think of unstructured data as the wild child of business; impossible to predict yet overflowing with potential. Which means that yes, taken on its own, unstructured data is difficult to work with, but tapping into the value of—and mitigating risks associated with—unstructured data is rapidly becoming an imperative for business.
The bottom line, if you aren’t already taking steps toward —processing, organizing, and analyzing unstructured data, now is definitely the time to start.
What is unstructured data? Simply, it’s any information that doesn't fit neatly into traditional databases. Which is a nice way of saying unstructured data encompasses pretty much everything. It includes everyday content like emails and chats; it spans most business documents such as presentations and contracts; and it includes any information in non-document format, such as images, audio, and video.
To be usable at even a low scale, unstructured data needs to be analyzed and converted into a structured format.
The wide world of information can be broken down into data types by level of structure. Structure refers to how easily data can be exported/extracted, organized, and stored.
Structured data, for example transaction and payroll records or customer contact info, is by nature stored in a relational database where each component of information is consistent in how it is labeled and the type of data stored per label. There aren’t any barriers to using this type of data to feed into a business process or analysis.
The bad news is, only about 10% of data is ready and waiting in structured format.
That leaves the other ~90% of data in the unstructured camp. Unstructured data does include what is called semi-structured data as well. Semi-structured data, for example invoices or application forms, include some loose structural guideposts.
Examples of data types:
First let’s talk about the risks. Left unprocessed, unstructured information poses increasing risk to the organization, since uncategorized business information creates both security and compliance blindspots.
Unstructured data in the workplace – think about email alone – can include anything from intellectual property to sensitive customer information. The unknowns of everyday unstructured business data leave information in the danger zone for security, privacy, and compliance breaches.
Risk isn’t the whole story. Far from it. The potential of our unstructured data “wild child” is vast, and represents a largely untapped resource for enterprises to innovate and gain competitive advantage.
Consider our favorite example: email. A customer service inbox that receives hundreds of inquiries each day, accumulating thousands of messages over the course of a year, may appear to be data deadweight, taking up digital storage space. But wait – what about the possibility of insights buried within this vast store of unstructured customer interactions?
Transform the emails into structured data and unlock the answers to strategic questions about what customers are asking and their satisfaction with the resolution. That data can in turn be applied to setting up intelligent automation to sort and assign customer inquiries, or even to respond right away with relevant information. Those emails become a path to customer satisfaction.
Extend the idea to recorded customer calls. Voice data contains additional layers of insights to glean from tone, context, speed, volume, etc. Not accessing this unstructured information leaves all of its potential value unrealized.
It’s just one small example of the structured data potential hidden within unstructured data. In general, automating - and improving - any business processes requires structured data, making it the humble cornerstone of digital transformation.
One of the biggest hurdles to digital transformation is the inability to effectively automate and scale business processes because of – you guessed it – the problem of unstructured data. The reality is that automation hinges on data availability. Automation technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent automation (IA) platforms are fueled by structured data. Efficiently processing unstructured data represents the path to both broader and deeper enterprise automation.
For employees, unstructured data slows work down. Whether searching for needed content or processing documents, the clear consensus is that the nature of business information today and the speed at which more unstructured business content is constantly added, pose real barriers to productivity and employee satisfaction. Transforming unstructured content at work into usable, searchable, data represents a significant opportunity to make gains in workforce productivity.
Getting a handle on what your unstructured data contains and who has access rights to the information enables identifying where sensitive information lies. That sounds simple, but the changing nature of unstructured data makes this a non-trivial point. Establishing an ongoing approach to processing unstructured data, discovering and classifying sensitive information, and reporting on it for compliance purposes, is essential to protecting your business.
There’s no end to the potential of unstructured data to drive business innovation. Every business knows how to analyze their structured data; few organizations today have truly begun to scratch the surface of how to harness their unstructured information. That means it’s open season for enterprises to leap ahead, innovate, and discover competitive advantages using their unstructured data. A few ideas: Analyze employee data to identify high potential staff or get ahead of flight risks; Use customer interaction data to personalize customer experiences at a granular level; Use customer and market feedback, both direct and indirect, to determine product roadmaps; Analyze internal process data to improve business outcomes.
Harnessing unstructured data isn’t straightforward or everyone would be doing it already, right? It’s true, this type of data is difficult to manage and process because it doesn’t fit neatly into traditional databases. As a result, for most businesses today extracting insights from unstructured data feels like too daunting a task to tackle.
However, with the right tools and strategies in place, businesses can overcome these challenges and extract valuable insights from their unstructured data. Here are a few tips:
Harnessing unstructured data stands to become the next essential step for businesses to be able to compete and remain viable in the fourth industrial revolution.
While it’s clear that today the potential of unstructured data is still largely untapped, as businesses become more aware of the value of unstructured data and how to effectively utilize it, the race to will be on.
Don’t wait. Take advantage of existing powerful (and easy to use) technology to transform unstructured data into ready-to-use structured information. Your unstructured data is waiting to be discovered.
To learn more about unstructured data, check out the following resources: