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Finding Meaning in Unstructured Data

Data sets so complex that managing them through traditional data processing methods becomes difficult are collectively known today as “Big Data”. It’s used to extrapolate trends in everything from customer spending to bird migrations. But many smaller organizations struggle to manage even modest (let alone “Big”) amounts of data on their own. This diverse, disparate data exists in spreadsheets, CRMs, Quickbooks, and elsewhere. All of it is changed and maintained but never structured in a way to make it useful even though this unstructured data accounts for 85% of all the data businesses have (thanks, Gartner). Let’s examine the differences between structured and unstructured data, and what can be done to harness it.

Unstructured Data vs. Structured Data

Unstructured is what we call data that exists outside of a database or some type of hierarchal structure. For many organizations, it takes the form of e-mail messages, PowerPoint documents, instant messages, JPEGs, and other file types. Structured data lives in SQL or other databases and can be easily manipulated and recalled when needed. Because of the technologies required to structure data, and the fact that unstructured data is largely text-based, American businesses can expect the volume of their unstructured data to double every three months (Gartner, again).

The Problem with Unstructured Data

Unstructured data contains important information on your business that can be used to serve customers and reduce costs, if only it could be harnessed properly. In its current state, your data exists across multiple users’ desktops and hidden away in Excel workbooks where you’ll never find it. The very nature of unstructured data makes using it for decision making almost impossible. Plus, the sheer volume alone raises concerns about storage capacity.

Structuring Processes to Structure Your Data

Unstructured data doesn’t result entirely from unstructured work (people will always send e-mails and create PowerPoint presentations on their own), but standardizing your business processes is a good first step toward reducing the amount loose information haunting your hard drives and servers. Each of your employees has their own methods of creating and storing data in spreadsheets and your other systems of record. Instead, consider automating much of what they do by hand now with software like Foxtrot from EnableSoft. By scripting and then automating their (your) processes, you can ensure that data is entered, changed and (importantly) stored in a way that allows it to be accessed and analyzed later regardless of who’s sitting behind the desk. Foxtrot ensures that data is created and changed the same way every time, then saved to correct folders and databases.

Automation technology also works like a better Extract Transfer and Load (ETL) solution that is capable of scraping data from your disparate files and compiling them in one place for easy viewing. If you’re struggling with data spread across multiple intranet pages or accounts in Salesforce.com, using Foxtrot to harvest and gather that data for you might be a quick solution – certainly more so than implementing an enterprise search engine. It’s never too late to begin adding structure to your unstructured processes. But to get more out of your data now, try using technology that helps you pull information from the widely-scattered resources you have available.

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