The Economist Highlights Growth In ESI and Information Management, But Not The Legal and Regulatory Implications

by Aaref Hilaly on March 3rd, 2010

As a long-time reader of The Economist, I was excited to find that this week’s edition writes at length about the exponential growth in electronically stored information (ESI), and how people are using technology to manage it.  I believe this is one of the most significant “mega-trends” impacting our economy, and I was thrilled to see it recognized by a mainstream publication. But when I read the 14-page special report, I was disappointed to find that its analysis of the legal and regulatory implications of “the data deluge” is really weak.

The survey does a good job of teeing up the issue:

The world contains an unimaginably vast amount of digital information which is getting ever vaster ever more rapidly. This makes it possible to do many things that previously could not be done: spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on. Managed well, the data can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights into science and hold governments to account.

It goes on to talk about how companies like Walmart, which has 2.5 petabytes of point-of-sale transaction data, is using business intelligence software to analyze the 1 million transactions it does every hour. By doing so, Walmart is able to improve the efficiency of its supply chain and the effectiveness of its marketing. The article also describes how companies like Amazon and Google use web analytics software on click stream data to improve their services.

What’s missing is an equally intelligent analysis of the legal and regulatory implications of all this data. The move from paper to ESI (email and files) has created a user-generated, written record of everything that happens in a company. That’s incredibly helpful when, after the fact, questions or disputes arise. Rather than relying on incomplete recollections, courts and regulators can now consult a written record – one where every document is time-stamped and very often attached to a person’s name via email. That enables judges and regulators to get better information which, in turn, leads to better decisions. It’s hard to quantify the value of that, but there’s no doubt it’s substantial.

There is, however, a catch. Because the volume of ESI is so great, it’s really expensive to gather, sift through, and then produce information. Add the requirement that the process needs to be defensible (i.e., easily explained in court), and the whole thing gets really expensive really fast. Hence the need for electronic discovery software: it’s the only cost-effective way for companies to manage their ESI from a legal and regulatory perspective.

That’s why I believe e-discovery software will be as big a category as web analytics software or business intelligence software – it’s a different side to the same coin. Or, more specifically, a different dimension to managing digital information stores which, as The Economist points out, are growing tenfold every five years.

Update: Nick Patience at The 451 Group has also posted on this topic, at almost exactly the same time as me.

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