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December 1, 2021

Conquering the Data Fragmentation Problem in Our Newly Wired World

Salim Elkhou


Ever since COVID-19 gripped the world last year, one thing has become abundantly clear: the way we work has changed irrevocably. We proved that long-term remote work can be effective and many of us are unlikely to go back into the office five days a week; freedom and flexibility have become important cultural values; and technology has played a greater role in helping us stay productive and connected with colleagues.

Though we’ve seen signs of these trends for a few years, the pandemic dramatically accelerated them. Now, they’ve become staples of our newly wired world, and the companies who fully embrace these digital-first workplace trends will have a special opportunity to revamp how their businesses operate.

The Rise of Collaboration Apps (And Their Unintended Consequence)

One of the biggest changes influenced by the pandemic, one many of us can relate to, is around how we collaborate. Since the shift from strictly in-office work to fully remote (and now increasingly hybrid) models, cloud-based collaboration applications have flooded the workplace. From Slack and Google Workspace, to Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and more, these apps have become the de facto standard for modern communication and information exchange.

While they have undoubtedly enhanced collaboration, efficiency and employee satisfaction, their usage has also introduced an unintended consequence: the creation of scattered data silos and new hiding places for our information. Even before the pandemic, many companies were already grappling with the data deluge brought on by the cloud migration era. Those data volumes are only growing larger and larger, as the number of apps deployed within organizations is steadily rising and spreading our information across dozens of tools. According to Okta’s latest Business at Work report, large companies today are using an average of 175 apps within their organizations, a 22% increase over the last four years.


Each of these apps create separate, siloed stores of data – data which also tends to be unstructured, creating even more fragmentation. The text, audio and video files, instant message threads, and even emoji created by today’s collaboration apps have no predefined format, making them significantly more difficult to find, process and understand compared to structured data.

These apps have changed the way we work for the better, and they’re here to stay. But without the ability to effectively discover, control or make sense of the data they create, we not only open ourselves up to greater risk, but also limit the potential to uncover valuable insights and knowledge.

An Opportunity to Reset

We have arrived at a window of opportunity to turn this data fragmentation challenge into a competitive advantage. While many companies have spent much of the last 19 months focused on rolling out tools and systems to maintain continuity – often abruptly in an effort to keep the lights on – now is the time to take a step back, to reflect on these deployments, establish retrospective governance, and optimize how tools are used going forward.

Similar to “the roaring 20s’” one hundred years ago, many commentators are hailing the arrival of the “Great Reset,” which is a rare moment to turn a turbulent event into an opportunity for revitalization and growth. But organizations must act fast. Data fragmentation is a universal problem, and the companies who are the first to fix it will be the quickest to truly harness their knowledge and create a competitive edge.

For instance, we’re already starting to see the impact of boundless knowledge on creating stronger talent pools. If the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that effective working doesn’t have to happen in an office at a single location – the companies who can most effectively unify and share their knowledge across the organization will be best placed to optimize their distributed workforce. Those that can hone their ability to connect and easily surface corporate information will also be better placed to mitigate the effects of “The Great Resignation” –– the phenomenon of employees leaving the workforce or switching jobs in droves since the pandemic started. As more employees voluntarily leave their organizations, taking valuable knowledge with them, it is more important than ever to have processes in place to continuously memorialize institutional information and ensure continuity for existing or newly hired staff.


A retrospective analysis of data governance can enhance a company’s risk mitigation posture as well. As workplace apps continue to proliferate, fragmented and unstructured data will compound. If data management goes unchecked, it can affect a company’s operations, slowing down time-sensitive processes like investigations or M&A due diligence. More serious consequences include increased litigation costs surrounding complex eDiscovery, and the reputational risk associated with uncontrolled sensitive company data, which can also lead to fines and other penalties.

Risk aside, the ongoing data fragmentation created by our collaboration apps affects workers’ productivity as well –– despite the fact that these apps are meant to make us more productive. Research has shown that the average employee spends more than 25% of their time searching across their apps for the information they need and already own – that’s precious time that could be dedicated to more value-generating work. While no company will ever completely eradicate the administrative task of looking for information, imagine the productivity gains that could be achieved if this number were reduced to 20% or even 15%.

Four Steps for Conquering Data Fragmentation

Cloud apps have been a boon for companies everywhere, especially as remote work becomes the norm. As their popularity continues to drive up adoption, the onus is on IT teams to regain control of the vast amounts of disparate information these apps create. Wrangling this data is no simple feat, but four crucial steps can help get you started:

  1. Harden information governance policies. This should start with identifying and categorizing what data you have, and especially understanding what data is considered sensitive, like internal revenue numbers or private customer information. Equally important is understanding who owns the data and what system it is being stored in. This ensures that policies cover a comprehensive data inventory, with nothing slipping through the cracks. Also, remember that simply writing a policy is not enough – they must be followed through with enforcement.
  2. Create an environment where data security and integrity are held in the highest regard. What employees say and do while using workplace apps makes up corporate knowledge, but some of the best collaboration tools are so consumer-like and user-friendly that it’s easy to forget we are communicating in a work environment. Continuously educate employees on appropriate use of communication and collaboration tools in the workplace, providing clear guidance around things like recording do’s and don’ts, or where sensitive information should be stored or shared.


  3. Embrace automation. Manually preserving or combing through unstructured data increases the risk for human error and will cost teams valuable time in searching, processing, and understanding all the information that lives across their different applications. Explore the role of Machine Learning when it comes to identifying certain file characteristics and automating processes like data classification, retention, and archiving.
  4. Link islands of information so that all data is discoverable. Breaking down data silos requires a system that can create a connecting layer across the various data sources that exist in your environment. The beauty of open platforms is that they enable this connectivity by allowing companies to plug in external tools, applications, data or processes. By unifying information from multiple apps within one central repository, employees can search across several data sources, all at once, rather than running cumbersome searches within individual applications.

Not all organizations have warmed up to the reality of our newly wired world and many are still pushing to bring employees back into the office full time. But I believe the real winners will be the ones who embrace a digital-first environment –– one that optimizes the latest and yet-to-be-developed tools that enable us to connect, communicate and collaborate.

With each cloud-based application that enters the workplace, total data volumes and the challenge of being able to find the information we need, will only continue to grow. With this, comes a greater threat to corporate knowledge and insights. The secret is to recognize this threat as an opportunity – a chance to use the data fragmentation that spiraled out of the pandemic as a moment to affect real change.

Generating useful knowledge starts with an ability to find, access, and manage our data, much of which is hidden within our workplace apps. The IT and information governance teams who can employ the right processes, systems and tools to help achieve this will enable their businesses to capitalize on a narrowing window of opportunity, opening the door to stronger competitive differentiation, new growth and long-term resilience.

About the author: Salim Elkhou is CEO of Onna and founded the company in 2015 when he realized that a technology-based solution was needed to address the growing “discovery” problem at scale. Throughout his career, Salim identified a gap with the rise in popularity of cloud-based and hosted enterprise apps. He saw that knowledge quickly becomes fragmented, making search between applications manual and time-consuming, and slowing down overall performance and productivity. Salim has 20 years’ experience in the technology space. Straight from University and aged only 23, he created eStet, a successful eDiscovery business, which was a consulting company that was acquired by Ernst & Young (EY).

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