Nearly every business executive I speak with acknowledges that information has value and is a “critical corporate asset.” Yet scant few measure its value as if it were one. In our recent probe into information-centric companies, we learned that while we value plenty of amorphous or intangible assets including patents, trademarks and copyrights, and even have a formal fudge-factor for indiscernible corporate value: goodwill. However, the gatekeepers of GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) continue to deny asset class status to data, organizations that treat it like an asset, garner more shareholder value.
Information as an Asset?
Hundreds of academicians over the past 50 years from have studied and demonstrated the role of information technology (IT) in driving business value, but what they have failed to do is separate the “I” from the “T”. As a physical asset, technology is easily given a value attribution and represented on balance sheets. But information, not so much. The timeline of accounting and technology milestones the past century reveals that the asset classes were established by the then-nascent SEC in the late 1930s, ostensibly fifteen years before the advent of information technology. Even though information meets all the criteria of a balance sheet asset, it continues to be an asset also-ran, relegated to being talked about as an asset by business executives, treated as a resource by business minions, often managed as a business byproduct by IT departments, and roundly ignored by the finance department.
Anecdotal Evidence of Information’s Value
It’s hard today not to see the tangible, economic benefits of information all around us: Walmart uses social media trend data to entice online shoppers to purchase 10-15% more stuff; Kraft spinoff Mondelez grew revenue by $100M through improved in-store promotion configurations using detailed store, chain, product, stock and pricing data; and UPS saves over $50M, delivers 35% more packages per year and has doubled driver wages by continually collecting and analyzing over 200 data points per truck along with GPS data to reduce accidents and miles driven. Even businesses from small city zoos to mom-and-pop coffee shops to wineries are collecting, crushing and consuming data to yield palpable revenue gains or expense reductions. In addition, some businesses beyond the traditional crop of data brokers monetize their information assets directly by selling or trading them for goods or services.
Yet while as a physical asset, technology is easily given a value attribution and represented on balance sheets, information is treated as an asset also ran or byproduct of the IT department. Your company likely accounts for and manages your office furniture with greater discipline than your information assets. Why? Because accounting standards in place since the beginning of the information age over 50 years ago continue to be based on 250 year old industrial age realities.
Nicolas Carr famously and controversially observed over a decade ago, “IT doesn’t matter.” True, technology itself rarely offers a real strategic advantage. More often it is the data that’s curated, integrated and analyzed which does.
Investors are Rewarding “Infocentric” Organizations (Whether They Know it or Not)
Although we have compiled hundreds of these examples, the question we really wanted to answer at Gartner was,“Do businesses that demonstrate more savvy with information outperform others on Wall Street?” So along with my research colleague Somendra Tripathi, we identified businesses that demonstrate information centric traits such as having a chief data officer (CDO), an enterprise data governance program, or data scientists (not just BI analysts). Then we compared their market-to-book value (specifically, their ) to the S&P average to discover that infocentric companies not only demonstrate a slight ability to generate more shareholder value per asset, but also have a 200-300% higher q value than the norm. In addition to that eye-opener, we found that information product companies (i.e. those in the business of selling data) have a 400-500% higher Tobin’s q than average.
In a similar study, researchers at the University of British Columbia and New York University have corroborated our findings and demonstrated a causal relationship. Their work reveals how mere mentions of information and data related topics in a firm’s 10-K filings presage a subsequent and significant increase in operating profits relative to the company’s industry.
Accounting for Your Information’s Value
Impressing investors is certainly a great argument for becoming more serious about collecting, managing and leveraging information as an asset. But why account for it as one? As Peter Drucker famously quipped: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
But the answer to this specific question about quantifying information value was articulated best by a CFO of a major global financial services firm who, after reading my Forbes piece
To put a finer point on it, imagine the difference between telling someone in your organization that he’s in charge of the customer database versus telling him that he’s responsible for the company’s $500M customer information asset. To help organizations capitalize their return on their information assets we help them apply information valuation models budget for information security, prioritize big data projects, justify analytics projects, and price information assets for sale or trade, among other reasons.
So let’s all ignore what the accountants, insurers and many courts say about information having no measurable value or not being a legitimate asset. It’s time to start behaving as if it does and is, because it does and is.
This piece originally appeared, in part, in Forbes: The Hidden Shareholder Boost From Information Assets
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