A Stench Gas Warning System for Information Governance?

“The most commonly used fire warning system in underground metal and nonmetal mines is the stench system. It employs the injection of a stench into the ventilation system or compressed air lines for carrying the fire warning signal to the underground miner.”

One-Way Fire Warning Alarm System for Underground Mines, Kenneth E. Hjelmstad, Mark A. Ackerson, U.S. Bureau of Mines. (pdf)

I took a little vacation time last week and ended up in the interior of British Columbia near a small resort town. Outside the town is a former lead and zinc mine – formerly one of the world’s largest (earning over $60 billion in revenue over 100 years). They have done a nice job of setting up a mine tour using the former crew train to transport you inside the mine and ex-miners as guides.

We hadn’t intended to go, but the train cleverly departs close to the town center, and as soon as our 3 year old son saw it, we “were done fer.” It was a good experience, and we learned some interesting things. Like, for example, although the mine focused on zinc and lead, it also produced silver – every ounce of which was bought by Kodak for producing film. According to the guide, these ancillary sales of silver entirely covered the cost of operating the mine – the rest was gravy.

But, the most interesting thing I learned was about the “stench gas warning system” – a system used for warning miners f there was a fire in the mine. This is a simple but effective system that has been used for decades: when there is a fire, Ethyl Mercaptan is released into the mine’s air supply system. The rotten egg smell pervades the entire mine within minutes (depending on the size and shape of the mine and the way it is ventilated), and upon smelling the stench, miners head to refuge areas, as they have been trained to do.

I thought this was a fascinating, low-tech way to transmit a message. Newer wireless technology that uses repeaters through the mine, low-frequency communications that travel through rock, and other systems have been developed to enable communication throughout the mine, but the stench gas system continues to be used, at least as a backup.

This, of course, got me thinking about information governance (hey, the fun never stops, even on vacation).

Like these mines, our businesses have a stench warning system for information governance. These are the events and situations that tell us that something is seriously wrong with the way we are managing our information, and that disaster is impending. However, unlike miners, we haven’t been trained on how to react properly when we smell the stench of poor information governance.

What are the stench warning systems for information governance? Here are some that come to mind:

  • Your shared drives are full of unclassified, unmanaged, duplicate, and unnecessary information
  • You have little or no governance on your SharePoint sites, allowing anyone to create a site without any rules about provisioning, sun-setting, classification, or retention of content
  • You allow “Shadow IT” to flourish, turning a blind eye to consumer-grade technology in your enterprise without any consideration of its risks and rewards. After all, the employees like it.
  • You have no idea how much really spend on litigation and e-discovery
  • You have no idea how many ongoing lawsuits you currently have
  • You think that IT is taking care of the information problem, but IT thinks that information is each department’s problem
  • Your solution to “email management” has been to enact blanket mailbox size restrictions

What do you think? Does the metaphor hold, or did I spend too much time down in the low oxygen environment of that mine?


  1. Owen Allen

    Hi Barclay, I think your idea is a good one, except that even if we trained the employees/miners to be able to recognize the stench, it will be very difficult to get them to react and know how to respond. With corporate governance issues such that you raise, the stench is always present to some degree. Sometimes it’s masked with the aroma or urgency, as in “I’ve got to get my job done now – I can fix that later!”
    It’s like the frog placed into cool water with the temperature slowly rising. He doesn’t realize he’s being cooked until he’s been boiled.
    The stench in the mine is noticeable because it’s released suddenly and is a shock to the miner’s senses. In a corporation, bad governance is usually not a surprise, unfortunately.

    • Barclay

      Yes, good point Owen. The “stench” of information mismanagement grows slowly, which I suppose is one of the reasons that analogies like landfills are used. The one exception is litigation and related events that should cause an instant and unavoidable shock – like stench gas. However, they often don’t have that effect, in my view because the people responsible for a proactive, long-term fix are insulated from the people responsible for putting out the fire.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s