United States: Are You - Or Someone You Love - A Content Hoarder?

Last Updated: September 26 2014
Article by Judy Selby and James A. Sherer

Hoarding is defined clinically as embodying "a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them." That accumulation occurs regardless of the actual value associated with the possessions, and often stands in stark contrast to what an outsider or "normal" person's perception.

The idea of accumulating vast quantities of useless things is so atypical—and so gut-wrenchingly abhorrent to most Americans—that it spawned its own cottage industry, where A&E bankrolled six seasons of "Hoarders," and Discovery Health provides inside looks into the issue with its "Buried Alive" series. But part of the true impact of the show is the viewers' self-reflections, whether those are, "at least my collections don't function in the same way," "at least I'm not hurting anyone with my habits," and the ever popular, "why can't those people just see how worthless that stuff is?"

Self-reflection is a powerful tool, but ingrained habits are difficult to appraise honestly, and even more difficult to address. And, ironically, people who would never dream of collecting Tupperware bowls, used wrapping paper, or soiled Beanie Babies" fail to acknowledge those exact same tendencies when it comes to hoarding electronically stored information ("ESI").

Simply put, enterprises are drowning in data. Almost unfathomable amounts of data are being generated from traditional sources, as well as from newer sources, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), sensors, and social media. Volumes of data are expected to increase exponentially, leading to a 4,300% increase by 2020. Some 80% of the data is "unstructured" or non-database content, largely email but increasingly documents, images, audio, and video.But an estimated 70% of data has absolutely no value, and simply adds to confusion—and problems—in enterprises, where "42% of managers say they use the wrong information at least once per week."

The vast majority of people likely would agree that such useless data should be discarded in a legally defensible way, especially when the data represents not only risk but also causes problems. That same majority, however, thinks of themselves as exceptions to the rule, and would love nothing more than an exemption to automatic deletion policies. "That policy is great. It's about time! For everyone else. It just shouldn't apply to my inbox. My stuff is different. I need it!"

How do we get the ones you love (or at least the ones you rely upon) to understand that hanging on to useless content makes about as much sense as saving empty cereal boxes and hundreds of old plastic bags?

Would you still behave this way if it were paper?

Ask employees to focus on the data that they're currently saving and ask if they would retain any given record if it was on paper. Do they really need those 14 email messages outlining a friend's lunch 6 months ago? Would they box up, index, and send those messages to off-site storage forever if they were in paper format? What about preliminary drafts of letters, contracts or briefs? Or Google Alerts? Or bill pay reminders?

With the bill pay reminders, it may depend on whether they were ultimately paid. But that, in fact, demonstrates the difference between valuable content and "other" – where something that once mattered no longer does.

What if it also cost money?

Ask employees if they understand that there are real costs associated with data storage. Although the hard cost of storage has trended downward over the past few years, the cost is still real and adds up, especially when carried out ad infinitum. Storage costs, however, are not the only costs associated with storing data. ESI and other content must be protected from cyber-attacks and the threat of data breaches. In the past, potential problems associated with paper documents were relatively limited. Today, ESI is vulnerable to anonymous attacks from thousands of miles away. Data can be stolen, altered, misused, and abused by foreign governments and cyber criminals alike, as well as by negligent or disgruntled employees and bored teenagers. In contrast, if defensibly discarded, the risk of data breached is reduced to zero.

Zero. Zero risk; and zero storage cost.

What if it hurt the business?

Ask employees how much time they waste looking for the right content or information. Imagine how efficiencies would improve if a given search didn't require sorting through volumes of useless data in order to find an important record. Or if you could eliminate potential false positives that lead to the 42% number of weekly issues mentioned above.

Zero problems with false positives.

And for those enterprises that might take pride in how much data they can now collect, store, and access (the "we store everything" crowd), stakeholders should understand that all that stored data might become discoverable in litigation, and a store-everything approach is no defense. Even if data isn't subject to production in a given lawsuit, it still might be subjected to a litigation hold, collected, and subsequently reviewed by counsel—at a significant per-hour cost—even if it is later determined that it need not be produced. In addition, the costs, administrative burden, functionality disruptions, and inefficiencies associated with subjecting data to legal holds can be quite substantial. Obviously, if valueless data has been defensibly deleted pursuant to a sound record retention and deletion plan, these costs can be greatly reduced.

Bring a plan, a trashcan, and perhaps a mirror

Make time to meet with those you love, and those you'd love to help with ESI and content hoarding. Bring along a plan for making significant changes that address both existing data stores and prospective behavior. Bring along a trashcan for those lingering binders (they still exist as well), and before you leave, ask your employee if they see any of the same signs in others...including yourself. Asking some difficult questions may lead, ultimately, to some worthwhile conclusions. And if all of that doesn't work, reach out to the talent scouts at A&E or Discovery Health; there might just be a future episode in it for you and your enterprise. Let's just hope not.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Judy Selby
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