When you have 10 files, you have data. When you have a thousand files in different formats with dates, authorizations, priorities, and so on, you have data about your data. Creating new ways to keep it all sorted out and managed will yield data about the data about your data. Et cetera ad infinitum.
Managing metadata has been Kon Leong's consuming passion for more than a decade now. Kon has been successful at the helm of his data archival company, ZL Technologies, which is not surprising considering his accomplished background in computer engineering and finance. He earned an MBA with distinction from the Wharton School and received an undergraduate degree in computer science from Concordia (Loyola) University, after starting out with a year at the Indian Institute of Technology.
He spent eight years in various IT engineering and management positions at Burroughs, Philips, and Union Bank. He leveraged his finance experience at the General Motors Treasurer's Office in New York City, where he managed GM's venture capital investments in high tech. From there, he moved on to become first vice president of mergers and acquisitions at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. In his first independent venture, he became co-founder and president of GigaLabs, a vendor of high speed networking switches.
Now his latest venture into enterprise software with ZL Technologies has streamlined things by not involving any external capital. ZL's customers include UBS, Wachovia, and Wells Fargo, to name a few. Kon likes to describe what his company does as the "manhandling of unstructured content."
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.1. Jeff: Records management is an area that seems to grow more complex all the time, developing from a glorified electronic filing cabinet into a process of overseeing the "lifecycle of a record." Is that accelerating complexity an accurate perception? Kon: You're actually understating the trend. At first, you might be thinking it involves management of email and data files. But think of all the files you find in a large enterprise: XML files, SharePoint, OCS, fax data, legacy data, and so on. Even so, all of those others combined are a fraction of the amount that is email. That's where the real challenge lies. Most people underestimate the scalability required to manage email, and not by 50% or 100%, but by about 100- to 200-fold, typically, and that number is accelerating. Wherever you set the goalpost, it's going to come up short before very long. It's one of those things where there is what could be called a series of continuing afterthoughts. People are inclined to say, "Let's add on this feature or that functionality." There is no end to it — e-discovery, records, you name it. 2. Jeff: Do you see the policies that are in place around records management being developed more by companies internally or imposed from the outside? Kon: That is an area where the emphasis has been changing, in my opinion. For 20 years, it has been the end users' judgment that tagged the records and made decisions regarding how records are maintained. Now the courts are weighing in and saying that may not be the best policy. Recently, there have been some major cases where end users making decisions about what is relevant have come under serious scrutiny. First, they don't have the legal training to assess what information is relevant to a case, and second, it's like asking the fox to guard the chickens. So the consensus is becoming that if end-user judgment isn't sufficient, you need to develop and require another way to classify using a more automated best practice approach and then have a manual override when it is necessary. 3. Jeff: As startup companies establish their own records-management policies with intentionality toward the current environment, do they set the pace for the legacy companies that may need to change their policies? Kon: No, I don't think the smaller companies are leading the charge here at all. The cutting edge is really with the large adopters among enterprise businesses. They have the biggest headaches and the most complex set of requirements. The technology needs in the category of larger, more established companies are truly remarkable and very demanding. They are the ones who are setting the pace. Small companies don't really have the same kind of burden in this area. 4. Jeff: Which part/aspect of the records management lifecycle process do you see undergoing the greatest change right now? Kon: For the digital track, all of it is really virgin territory. The sheer scale of it changes everything. There are some important changes and developments going on at each stage of the lifecycle, but I believe the last step is the one that poses the greatest challenge. It's one of the dirty little secrets right now and hasn't gotten sufficient scrutiny. At the scale of the Fortune 500, because of the complexity and the requirements, I see very few solutions out there being capable of actually eliminating a document. To go into that mountain of data on a regular basis and destroy the documents that have expired is something not many vendors can actually do. I don't think this area has been questioned sufficiently.
When you have billions of documents, you need a way to identify a document, including the cc's, bcc's and group lists. Ideally, you would have one document, and then the duplicates are represented by five to 10 pointers. Here's one that is pointing to a legal document, and another is pointing to an environmental issue. Those can't be deleted. And this daily burdensome cycle of selecting each document for purging, checking all its pointers and related retention periods, may be repeated for millions of documents a day, scattered across billions of documents in the enterprise. It's a herculean task, but it's not impossible. It just needs to be carefully architected.
Kon Leong is the CEO of ZL Technologies and is based in San Jose, CA. When he's not busy running the company, he enjoys roaming around the globe, learning new languages and cultures. A lifelong goal is to start a knowledge compendium tentatively titled Integration of the Humanities, to be completed over a decade or two with the collaboration of hundreds of experts across related disciplines. You can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @zltechnologies.
Jeff Cerny has written interviews with top technology leaders for TechRepublic since 2008. He is also the author of Ten Breakable Habits to Creating a Remarkable Presentation.