OPINION

The PG&E Disaster and the Case for Digitizing Physical Documents

The IT industry purely loves digital information and with good reason. Creating, storing and archiving documents consisting of 1’s and 0’s provides the foundation for thousands of business computing solutions and billions of dollars in annual sales.

While the gospel of the “all-digital enterprise” inspires many proselytizers and true believers, companies in the real world tend to utilize both digital and physical documents and records. However, that process can result in an uneasy balancing act with sometimes serious repercussions.

Want an extreme worst-case example? Look no further than Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the utility company that provides electric and natural gas services to most of Northern and Central California.

On September 9, 2010, a PG&E natural gas transmission pipeline in San Bruno ruptured and exploded into a devastating fire, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. Not surprisingly, this tragic loss of life and property led to multiple investigations by PG&E, local authorities, insurance carriers and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

Those efforts intensified when it was discovered that though the company’s records described the pipeline as seamless, investigators found multiple poorly welded seams that they believed might have caused or contributed to the rupture and blast. Complicating matters further, PG&E had never conducted inspections on the line that were capable of discovering bad welds.

Paper Chase

As a result, in October 2010, the CPUC ordered PG&E to produce records detailing the history, construction, performance and condition not just of the San Bruno pipeline but of its entire gas transmission infrastructure by March 15, 2011.

One might think that complying with such a sizable order wouldn’t be that a big deal for a modern utility company driving nearly US$14 billion in annual revenues. One might think that, but one would be seriously wrong.

PG&E’s efforts to digitize its records and archives reportedly have been troubled for years. So, meeting the CPUC’s order resulted in a paper chase of monumental size. A preliminary study suggested that the company’s pipeline archive included around 1.2 million physical documents, including inspection records, studies and reports.

PG&E rented San Francisco’s Cow Palace, a cavernous venue originally designed to host livestock shows and rodeos, and commenced hand searching nearly 100,000 file boxes of paper records.

The sheer impact of that many physical file boxes is hard to grasp, so what does it mean in practical terms? The boxes — which are stored in warehouses near the Cow Palace — are being transported by forklifts carrying 30 boxes on each pallet, according to reports. That works out to about 3,300 pallets total, or enough to cover most all of an NFL football field in file boxes to a depth of about four feet.

Things got even stickier when an initial investigation found thousands of documents missing. That prompted some curious efforts, including PG&E contacting thousands of former employees to ask if they’d ever “happened to take home” materials relevant to the investigation for work or study.

Unable to meet the March 15 deadline, the company petitioned the CPUC for an extension, saying that it would need at least through the end of 2011 to comply.

That prompted outcries from victims of the San Bruno disaster who were trying to get on with their lives, as well as utility watchdog groups, several of which suggested PG&E deserved to be fined up to $1 million per day it was out of compliance.

Not surprisingly, the CPUC’s proposed decision granting the extension the company requested, fining PG&E $3 million and threatening an additional $3 million fine if it failed to comply with the new deadline, left many incensed by what they considered a sweetheart deal.

The office of California’s attorney general voiced serious displeasure, both at the size of the fine and the lack of oversight the proposed ruling offered regulators. While the CPUC is scheduled to vote on the proposal by April 11, virtually any result is likely to face close scrutiny and possible challenges. Resolution of investigations and litigation related to the San Bruno explosion and fire are still years and at least tens of millions of dollars away.

EMC’s Captiva 6.5

An unusual situation? To be sure, but primarily in degree. Virtually every private and public sector organization maintains a delicate balance between managing physical and digital records, between supporting traditional and technological business processes.

Sometimes it takes an event like the San Bruno disaster to demonstrate just how far out of whack that relationship has become, but sometimes it takes much less.

So, can any IT solutions help companies effectively address and hopefully avoid such circumstances? Actually, yes, including EMC’s Captiva 6.5, the latest update of the company’s intelligent enterprise capture solution. Captiva 6.5 is designed to transform paper documents, faxes and other content into digital data used by business applications and IT processes. EMC benchmark testing found that a single Captiva 6.5 server can process more than 10 million images per day.

New customization, integration and management options notably simplify system deployment and reduce the time it takes for companies to begin using Captiva 6.5. In addition, the solution’s new Production Auto Learning feature enables systems to automatically classify and extract important business information from documents as they are being scanned, notably accelerating the capture processes for invoices, loan documents, policy claims, and many other document types.

EMC’s Captiva 6.5 is obviously aimed at global enterprises, but those are the organizations that have the greatest need for comprehensive intelligent capture solutions. They are also likely to be most aware of the potential costs they face — in legal fees and fines, wasted time and revenues and lost confidence and trust among customers and partners — should the unthinkable ever occur.

Taking such circumstances into consideration, and noting the painful ongoing lessons of PG&E’s San Bruno disaster, the potential return on wisely, proactively investing in a solution like EMC’s Captiva 6.5 is almost incalculable.

Charles King

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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Maintaining Global Compliance With Modern Data Privacy Laws

Data privacy laws are becoming a major focus globally as businesses scamper to meet new compliance obligations.

Privacy regulations generally bind any business or organization to store securely all data they collect or process. What they do with that data is strictly regulated.

Some 65% of the world’s population will have its personal data covered under modern privacy regulations by the end of next year, according to a Gartner report. Complying with these expanding regulations can be challenging.

Companies have had near free reign in harvesting personal data from electronic transactions and growing internet use over the last 20 years.

Many organizations involved with international commerce must alter their procedures to fall into line with new legislation. This is a priority for transactions and correspondence involving e-commerce and social media.

Expanding consumer mistrust, government action, and competition for customers pushed some governments to impose strict rules and regulations. The impact is changing the no-man’s land conditions that let both large companies and small businesses run rampant with peoples’ personal data.

“By far the biggest challenge that companies face is keeping up with the volume of data that they manage, which is also subject to ever-changing data privacy requirements,” Neil Jones, director of cybersecurity evangelism at Egnyte, told TechNewsWorld.

Assortment of Differing Demands

The EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In the U.K. and Continental Europe, data privacy has generally been viewed as a fundamental human right, according to Jones. In the U.S. and Canada, businesses must navigate around a growing patchwork of state and provincial laws.

Data privacy legislation in the U.S. and Canada has traditionally been more fragmented than in the U.K. and Europe. Canada’s Quebec, and the United States’ Utah and Connecticut are among the latest to enact comprehensive data privacy laws, joining the U.S. states of California, Virginia, and Colorado.

By the end of 2023, 10% of states in the U.S. will be covered by data privacy legislation, noted Jones. This lack of a universal standard for data privacy has created an artificial layer of business complexity.

Add to that, today’s hybrid work environment has created new levels of risk which has complicated compliance with myriad privacy concerns.

What’s at Stake

To enhance productivity, organizations may need to ask employees detailed questions about their behavior and work-from-home arrangements. These types of questions can create their own unintended privacy impacts, according to Jones.

The recent convergence of personally identifiable information (PII) and protected health information (PHI) has also put highly-confidential data at risk. This includes workers’ compensation reports, employees’ and patients’ health records, and confidential test results like Covid-19 notifications.

“With 65% of the world’s population expected to have personal data covered under privacy regulations by next year, respecting data privacy has never been more critical,” said Jones.

Cloud Privacy Hurdles

Data privacy and security are top challenges for implementing a cloud strategy, according to a recent study by IDG, now rebranded as Foundry. In this study, data security’s role was a prominent concern.

When implementing a cloud strategy, IT decision-makers or ITDMs are running into challenges such as controlling cloud costs, data privacy and security challenges, and lack of cloud security skills/expertise.

With a more stringent focus on securing privacy data, that issue looms large as more organizations migrate to the cloud. The IDG study found that two chief hurdles were data privacy and security challenges, and a lack of cloud security skills/expertise.

Spending on cloud infrastructure is up by some $5 million this year, according to Foundry.

“Although enterprise businesses are leading the charge, SMBs are not far behind when it comes to cloud migration,” said Stacey Raap, marketing and research manager at Foundry when the report was released.

“As more organizations move toward fully being in the cloud, IT teams will need the proper talent and resources to manage their cloud infrastructure and overcome any security and privacy hurdles that come with being in the cloud,” she noted.

Achieving Compliance

Organizations can successfully prepare for data privacy legislation, but doing so requires making data privacy initiatives a “full-time job,” Jones maintained.

“Too many organizations view data privacy as a part-time project for their web teams, rather than a full-time business initiative that can significantly impact customer relations, employee morale, and brand reputation,” he offered.

Beyond that step comes establishing holistic data governance programs that provide more visibility into the company’s regulated and sensitive data. Added to that is working with trusted business and technology partners who understand the data privacy space and can help you prepare for rapidly evolving regulations.

Perhaps the most dynamic approach is to use an Advanced Privacy & Compliance (APC) solution, suggested Jones. This enables organizations to comply with global privacy regulations conveniently, in one place.

Specifically, APCs can help achieve compliance by:

  • Managing Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs) like individuals’ right to be informed about the personal data collected on them, the right to opt-out of personal information being sold to others, or the right to be forgotten by collecting organizations
  • Assessing a company’s compliance preparedness and scope with specific regulations (e.g., GDPR, CCPA)
  • Creating and reviewing third-party vendors’ technical assessments and evaluating potential risks to consumers’ data
  • Augmenting cookie consent capabilities like integration of cookie consent into compliance workflows

Proactive Diligence

It can be difficult for companies to understand today’s rapidly-evolving privacy landscape, as well as how specific regulations apply to them, Jones said. However, by taking proactive steps, organizations can stay on top of data privacy regulations in the future.

Those steps include these ongoing tasks:

  • Monitor the status of data privacy regulations in the countries, provinces, and states where the customer base lives
  • Create a data privacy task force that can improve organizational focus and enhance senior executive attention on privacy initiatives
  • Keep abreast of new federal data privacy legislation like the proposed American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA)

It is also important to note the additional long-term benefits of data privacy compliance. In particular is bolstering a company’s overall cybersecurity defenses.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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5 Ways To Sustain an E-Commerce Business in a Recession

economic downturn recession

Talks of a possible global recession coming in the next months have been abound lately. Even if it’s not yet certain, the threat of a downturn is something that e-commerce business owners should prepare for.

In a recession, prices can soar. Supply chains can be disrupted. Customers will be buying less. How these would specifically affect your business can vary depending on the nature and niche your business operates in.

The 2008 recession should serve as a warning to entrepreneurs. Small businesses struggled during this period with many ending up shuttering their doors. As such, it’s important to strategize for sustainability in a harsher business environment.

Here are five ways to sustain an e-commerce business during a recession.

1. Prepare Cash Reserves

Having ready cash on hand provides the agility and flexibility to spend or invest when needed. But not all startups come with a stout war chest. Typically, this is where funding can come in.

“Funding isn’t just a hurdle at the start of an e-commerce business plan. Once your shop is up and running, you’ll need constant cash flow to order inventory, run effective advertising, optimize your supply chain, and innovate your products,” according to e-commerce funding firm 8fig.

A recession can compound this need. For instance, inventory and fulfillment costs typically rise during a downturn. Having extra cash can help absorb these price bumps readily.

The most straightforward way to shield a business against this is by saving to build up capital. Instead of spending profits on non-essentials, think about investing the money back into the business. Another idea is to sell some assets like machinery or equipment that may not be critical to operations at the moment. You can always repurchase them after things bounce back. Liquidate while you can.

Lastly, if external financing from investors or funding firms are available, consider those as long as you’re clear with the terms.

2. Adapt to Customers’ Needs

The pandemic emphasized how quickly businesses should adapt to the changes in customers’ buying behaviors and preferences. The lockdowns hit brick-and-mortar business hard. While many businesses failed to adjust, the ones that survived were the ones that were able to pivot quickly. Some changes were even quick to implement. For example, offering delivery services and curbside pickup options and accommodating digital payments.

“[T]he most adaptable marketers don’t do different things; they do things differently. In particular, they listen differently and they plan differently,” says Cassandra Nordlund, Director, Advisory, Gartner.

The same need for adaptability is true for e-commerce businesses. Put on your marketer’s hat and keep a close ear to what your customers are saying. Reach out and talk to them. Create a survey of what they would likely do or buy should the downturn happen. This should help to plan ahead.

For instance, a recession may compel customers to become more price conscious. If you’re in retail, you can tweak your catalog to feature and stock up on more budget items than luxury ones.

3. Become Lean and Mean in Operations

Aside from raising capital, you can also improve your finances by managing cash flow more carefully. Wasteful spending will chew away at your margins and capital.

It’s critical to streamline and optimize operations before the crunch hits. Review your business costs and see which areas you can trim. Some common sources of wasteful spending are uncontrolled use of office supplies, unnecessary technology (equipment and subscriptions), and unproductive workers. When making cuts, focus on these costs.

Keep in mind, however, that while you may be tempted to restrict spending entirely, this may become counterproductive. For instance, you may try to do away with some of the digital tools and subscriptions that you use to manage operational tasks. But if cutting them will seriously impact efficiency, it may be a bad idea to do so. Dive into the details to see how each line item benefits you before deciding whether to cut or retain it.

Remember that not all spending is bad. Opportunities may also arise even during turbulent times. Sudden market demand might make offering a new product or service profitable. If such chances do come up, consider taking the calculated risk. This is where having cash reserves also comes in handy.

4. Explore Ways To Deliver Added Value

Even with preparation, many e-commerce firms will likely still feel the brunt of a recession. A drop in sales can and should be expected as customers also tighten their purse strings.

When this happens, a common knee-jerk reaction for businesses is to compromise on price by offering discounts and price cut promotions to boost sales. However, be mindful that slashing prices can hurt margins and financial flexibility.

Warren Buffet once said about pricing, “If you’ve got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you’ve got a very good business. And if you have to have a prayer session before raising the price by 10 percent, then you’ve got a terrible business.”

Instead of slashing prices, consider other ways to offer value. Offer extended return windows or guarantees, free shipping, or loyalty points, and communicate these perks well to customers to justify your price.

But if you really need to attract the price-conscious, offer bundles rather than discounting per item. This way, you can promote your other products and services or move stagnant inventory while avoiding across-the-board price cuts.

5. Pivot the Business

Pivoting, or changing the direction of your business, can be a painful decision for entrepreneurs. But if things are looking grim, it may be a life-saving decision for your business.

For instance, many e-commerce entrepreneurs have made a killing using the drop-shipping business model. Drop shippers can keep operational costs down typically by not handling inventory and logistics. During a recession however, this might not hold true.

Without having a direct handle on stock, any supply chain disruption can easily stump drop shippers who are forced to reassure customers, when in reality they are at the mercy of their suppliers.

Foreign exchange rates can seriously impact the cost of goods. Transportation also will likely be affected. Both typically result in erratic prices and lengthy fulfillment times. Drop shippers would have very little control over these circumstances and could end up with dissatisfied customers.

Anticipating these changes, such businesses can reconsider their model and shift to one that will be more capable of delivering value to customers. Drop shippers can move toward more conventional retail e-commerce where the business acquires, stores, and handles stock. This action may require more capital — and work — but provides control and minimizes uncertainties involved in the drop-shipping model.

From Sustenance to Success

Building business resilience is critical during tough times. Making some sacrifices and tightening the belt in some respects should help weather the negative effects of a recession. What’s important is for a business to sustain itself so that it can live to fight another day.

Despite all this gloomy talk, recessions do end. Surviving a recession should put you in a better position to prosper in a better economic environment. Also, on the upside, e-commerce penetration is still seen to continue its rise globally. Shoppers are expected to continue preferring buying goods online.

Should the trend hold, opportunities in your market, niche, or locality can emerge despite the challenging times. A recession may even provide a chance for tremendous growth. Preparing well in advance can put you in a prime position to jump on such opportunities to thrive.

Ralph Tkatchuk

Ralph Tkatchuk is Founder and Operator at TK DataSec Consultancy, where he specializes in e-commerce data protection and prevention.

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