Because of the corporate focus on asset management there has been an interest for some time in defining what represents an information asset. This is especially important when undertaking information audits, especially as a prelude to migration. If you cannot define what you are counting then you cannot count anything. In the UK the National Archives, the lead body on information management in the public sector has published this definition.
An information asset is a body of information, defined and managed as a single unit so it can be understood, shared, protected and exploited effectively’ and that ‘Information assets have recognisable and manageable value, risk, content and lifecycles’
This definition comes from an excellent briefing paper entitled ‘Identifying Information Assets and Business Requirements’ which is probably the only published methodology on information asset identification.
There are two primary approaches to defining an information asset. One of these emerges from the work in information resource management (IRM) and the work of Horton and Burk in the early 1980s. The second takes an accounting perspective in an effort to place information assets on the balance sheet. These two approaches are summed up in some important work led by Charles Oppenheim in 2000 onwards and is reported in a paper published in 2003 in the Journal of Information Science. I acted as a member of the advisory panel for this project and so experienced at first hand the challenges of asset definition.
In Australia James Price and Nina Evans have made important contributions to the consideration of information assets, notably in papers published in 2012, 2014 and 2016. The 2012 and 2014 papers are open access downloads. These three papers all contain a review of the research undertaken since the pioneering work of Charles Oppenheim and his colleagues with an emphasis on resolving the question about what the barriers to effective information asset management in organisations?. The issues around putting information assets on the balance sheet were summarised by Nevine El-Tawy and Magdy Abdel-Kader in a paper in the Journal of Information Science in 2013.
Information asset definitions are of particular importance to records managers, as decisions have to be made on which assets should be treated as business records. In a paper published in 2015 Reynold Leming (Informu) set out a structure for an Information Asset Register and provided a very useful A-Z list of categories for information assets from Audits to Work Tracking. Inforumu specialise in information audit projects.
The most recent review of information asset definitions was published in May 2016 by Adeniji K. Adesemowo, Rossouw von Solms, Reinhardt A. Botha and this can be downloaded from the South African Journal of Information Management. Their summary of the outcome of their research is
“Contrary to expectations, the research study found the current definition to be incoherent. When the asset to be controlled is not properly defined and understood, it stands the risk of not being identified properly. This implies that the effectiveness, efficiency, reliability of internal control, and compliance with the applicable legislation and regulations would not be appropriate. This article highlights the need for a fundamental shift in how information assets (valuable, but unvalued organisational intangible assets) are being viewed and treated, especially with regard to information risk and internal control.”
This is a salutary reminder that we are still some way to being able to measure the quantity, let alone the quality, of the information owned by an organisation.