Most contemporary businesses are fairly proficient at collecting data about their customers. Although they may spend a lot of time developing advanced strategies for gathering information, unfortunately too many firms do relatively little with the insights buried in the data they manage to collect. This untapped, disorganized, but potentially invaluable information is sometimes referred to as “dark data.”

The danger in dark data

We live in an age of data excess. Everywhere companies look — marketing, advertising, sales, accounting, HR, manufacturing, shipping and logistics, and so on — heaps and mounds of data are available for consumption and discussion.

But without suitable methods for mining the data, valuable insights often go unnoticed and unused.

As TechSpective explains, “Dark data is a type of untapped, unstructured and untagged data that is found in data repositories and has not been processed or analyzed. It could be anything, such as outdated customer information, previous employee data, log files or email correspondences.”

According to IDC, up to 90 percent of all big data may qualify as dark data. This may sound unreasonably high, until you consider the variety of untapped data sources that companies rarely think about.

“Untapped data includes emails, notes, messages, documents, logs, and notifications — such as those from Internet of things devices — and even untranslated data assets from markets that are not English-speaking,” Deloitte explains. “This information remains largely unused either because it is not housed in a relational database or because the tools and techniques needed to leverage it efficiently did not exist until recently.”

Dark data clearly represents a massive wasted opportunity. If analyzed properly, it could offer keen insights into customer behavior, potential opportunities for growth and expansion, and ways to optimize in-house processes and strategies.

Aside from being wasteful, unused dark data may also increase your risk of data theft. Since dark data is rarely encrypted or protected in the same manner as structured data, it could provide the fodder for serious problems, should it end up in the wrong hands.

How to make better use of your data

Whether your dark data is not currently, actively hurting your business, or it merely represents missed opportunities, it’s imperative for you to adopt a proactive approach to making use of your unstructured data. Here are some prompts for thinking about how you might do that:

1. Use a data extraction tool

Your business needs a method for capturing all data, whether it’s digitally conveyed or post-scan paper content. Using data extract software is the best way to do this. As Adlib Software explains, “Data extraction supports organizations by optimizing their day-to-day content management functions — automatically identifying content within repositories, and zones within content, that are of greatest interest, and seamlessly converting them to XML or other formats ready for further downstream processing — from managerial review to big data analytics.”

2. Encrypt all data

There’s no excuse for leaving data vulnerable to hackers or susceptible to access by unauthorized users. When you take the trouble to encrypt as much unstructured as well as structured data as possible, you can lower your overall risk in this area.

3. Regularly audit your database

How frequently are you auditing your database? If you rarely (or never) audit your data, then you could be exposing your organization to huge amounts of unnecessary risk. Try to enact a process that will reduce the readily availability of old information and impose a stronger structure for legacy data you expect to sit over time.

4. Hire the right people

“Correctly handling your dark data means fostering a team that is prepared and educated about dark data first, then arming them with the tools to wrangle your data into submission,” Gartner analyst Tirena Dingeldein says.

“For instance, consider hiring a records manager (RM), or training one of your existing staff to do the job. Records managers know the federal and state laws that regulate stored information, and that the potential for a regulatory blunder increases with the amount of data collected.”

If you have the right systems but not the right people, that will significantly hamper your ability to bring dark data to light and maximize your company’s potential. Make sure you hire people who understand the importance of good data hygiene, and who can execute in the proper areas.

Don’t let dark data hold you back

Dark data shouldn’t be the thing that holds back your business. In order to be successful, you need to turn more of your unstructured data into structured data. Don’t ignore this potential pain point any longer.