Unstructured Data Analysis: A How-To Guide

Unstructured data is a daily resource that drives an organization’s success. The information, ideas, and data that live in your files, records, media, and documents is essential to improve performance and efficiency, make informed decisions, reduce risks, and drive growth.

In order to get the most out of your unstructured data, you need to know how to classify, analyze, and manage it. 

But what exactly is unstructured data? And how do you manage it?

Understanding Unstructured Data

To properly understand unstructured data and its role within your organization, you must first understand what structured data is. 

Structured data is quantifiable information that’s classified in a way that is easy to read and comprehend. It’s organized in a predefined format, such as a relational database or spreadsheet, where information is sorted into rows and columns according to preset parameters. This type of framework makes structured data easy to input, search, compare, and extract.

It follows then, that unstructured data is quite the opposite. Simply put, unstructured data is any information that does not fit neatly into a predefined structure. It includes documents like emails, text files, PDFs, engineering drawings, reports, proposals, and even social media posts — all of which contain valuable information such as invoice numbers, design specs, contract numbers, scope of work details, engineering notes, and so on. But this information isn’t organized in a way that can be easily accessed, extracted, and used.

At this point, you can probably see that unstructured data is highly qualitative and subjective in nature. There are different ways to interpret this information, which makes it difficult to properly store, navigate, analyze, and manage. 

The main challenges with unstructured data come from its volume, variety, and searchability. On average, unstructured data makes up 80% of all data stored by an organization and those volumes grow significantly every year. The vast amount of it makes it difficult to keep track of — and it only gets harder as the volume increases. 

From text documents and emails to presentations and drawings, unstructured data takes many different forms. These documents are difficult to tag and organize by name and metadata alone — and because there isn’t a common thread linking them all together, it’s difficult to locate specific pieces of information.

Therein lies the searchability challenge of unstructured data: so much of it isn’t easily accessible because every business is unique and there is no universally applicable set of standards for storing or sharing this type of information within an organization. This makes the information difficult to locate when needed, which impacts productivity, costing organizations time and money in the long run. 

Common Types of Unstructured Data

Business Documents

The first type of unstructured data comes from business documents. This includes things like written reports, PDFs, legal documents, presentations, engineering drawings, and so on. While text files can be sorted by a common file format, the data within those files can’t be analyzed without comprehensive technology. 

Because there’s so much of this data, it’s considered too time consuming to sort through and analyze. Consequently, the majority of it goes unused.


Next on the list is emails. As many business professionals will know, on top of sharing valuable and highly relevant business information, email is used as a ToDo list and file storage. Often, current and past employees have years of valuable information stored in their inbox. . This amounts to a ton of unstructured data in the form of email contents and their attachments. And though the emails can be sorted into categories, data in each of those emails and their attachments is unstructured.  

Social Media

The third type of unstructured data lives in social media posts. Similar to emails, some of the data in social media posts is organized. For example, hashtags sort information into various topics that users can easily search for and navigate. But the messages, opinions, and wealth of ideas holding these hashtags are unstructured. 

Image, Video, and Audio Files

Equally important to consider are multimedia files such as drawings, images, videos, and audio clips. These files can be sorted by titles and subjects, and saved in databases according to file type (such as MP3, MOV, PNG, and JPEG). However, the content within those files isn’t immediately accessible and understood — so it’s still considered unstructured data.

Why Is Unstructured Data Management Important?

Informed Decision Making

Your organization’s data is a goldmine. It contains valuable information about customers, suppliers, employees, and more — all of which can help improve your business and streamline operational processes.

When you have a full understanding of your unstructured data and take steps to manage it properly, it can deliver valuable insights that put you in a better position to make informed, data-driven decisions about your organization.


When you’re a data-driven organization, you need to be able to access the right data at any given moment, regardless of where it comes from. 

For example, it makes sense for all of your company’s data-using departments — such as operations, marketing, engineering, finance, HR, and IT — to have access to the same accurate and up-to-date data so business units can work effectively on projects together. If one department can’t access the data because it’s not properly organized and managed within the organization, it will cause delays, create blindspots, and task repetition when sharing, accessing, assembling, and even recreating documents. 

Properly organizing and managing this information makes it considerably easier to access and use — which will improve efficiency and create an environment where informed decisions can happen fast. An environment that makes the overhead of data assembly low so that creativity and innovation is high.  

Smart Data Governance

In addition to being difficult to find, unstructured data also presents challenges with regard to security. Humans are often the weakest link in properly securing and safeguarding this type of information. Convenience copies are stored locally and shared 1:1 with colleagues. Documents are saved in the wrong places. And, the balance of restriction and permission can be difficult to achieve, leading to unauthorized access, misuse, or worse.

With proper data management systems in place, you can effectively organize and understand what information requires more security than others — thereby improving your company’s data governance and risk management strategies. 

The unstructured data you hold is an invaluable asset. It can provide valuable insight into your customers, business processes, and company culture. But if it’s not well organized and analyzed, it can hold you back from unlocking its full potential…

How To Analyze Unstructured Data

Analyzing unstructured data can lead to new insights into customer behavior and new opportunities for growth. For example, a company analyzing its social media posts might be able to identify trends in customer sentiment or changes in customer behavior over time. These insights can then be used when developing new products or services, or refining existing offerings. 

So, how do you do it?

Determine Your Goal

The first step in analyzing your unstructured data is to define your goal: what do you want to accomplish with your analysis? What questions do you want answered? What patterns are you looking to uncover in the data?

Start by taking time to consider what insights you want to obtain from your data and how you can leverage those particular insights to drive your business forward. 

Once you’ve identified your goal, then it’s time to start collecting your data. 

Determine Your Goal

Data is all over the place, but you may want to narrow your focus on data from a specific data source, such as surveys, reviews, or social media posts. Based on your end goal, you can choose to look at historical data, collect data in real time, or do both to create a sustainable information intelligence program.

Clean Your Data With Technology

Once you’ve collected your data, the final step is cleaning it so it’s ready for analysis. This cleanup process — also called “preprocessing” — involves eliminating redundant, obsolete, and trivial information; and splitting the data into smaller, more manageable pieces.

But if you want to get the most out of your data, you’re going to need software that can do more than just clean the data. You’ll need a tool that can store and retrieve data; can give you a visual representation of your unstructured data as it continues to grow and change;and deliver actionable insights to help you drive your business. 

This is where Shinydocs comes in.

Shinydocs software helps you locate, understand, manage, and enrich your data wherever it lives.

Regardless of the size of your organization, Shinydocs can help you identify, visualize, cleanse, and organize your data from one centralized location, so you can understand what information you have, where it’s stored, so you can make informed decisions about how you can use it.

Closing Considerations

In sum, unstructured data is a combination of documents and files that lack a standardized organizational structure. This data lives in email inboxes, on file servers, and in shared drives throughout your company. 

As such, understanding, organizing, and analyzing unstructured data is essential for gaining a complete picture of your business — it is what enables you to make smart decisions about your organization and generate business growth.

Shinydocs is here to help. 

Shinydocs scans, connects, and enriches all of your data, no matter where it lives. From there, it delivers the insights that you need to act confidently and improve processes as your data — and your business — grows.

We’re Rethinking Data

At Shinydocs, rethinking data means constantly questioning our assumptions, reimagining what’s possible, and testing new ideas every step of the way to transform how businesses function.

We believe that there’s a better, more intuitive way for businesses to manage their data. Contact us to improve your data management, compliance, and governance.

Ready to analyze your business content?

This report offers an overview and a step-by-step guide for creating an inventory, so you can identify redundant, obsolete, and trivial (ROT) data and drive productivity. 

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