I read with great interest over the weekend the WSJ article, The People’s Republic of Data. The article explores the impact of two recent Chinese policy or law changes and what they mean to organizations doing business in China. The focus is on the vast and growing trove of data some large technology firms are collecting, where it is stored, and what value can be gleaned from its use and analysis. The result of these laws will impact first those firms operating in China and ultimately the global economy. Your data strategy will be out of date as a result.
To readers of this blog and for many of our clients the value of data is a hot, but not new, topic. Being part of the data and analytics team, we research where and how data is used to create new insight. We look at data used by machines, by people, by software, by public servants, by private business, by individuals. We explore what happens with data, when you have too much or too little data, or the wrong data, or make-up data, or lose trust in data. It’s a lifetimes experience to explore and seek to explain the wonderful world of data.
But in the last few years many western organizations, and I particularly mean some accounting standards bodies and central government agencies, have not kept up with the times. Any competitive CEO of a private business whose success was burned on the grate of competitive decision making will grasp, data is invaluable. Even now, an increasing but small number of people recognize that algorithms are valuable, analysis is king, but data that powers both is the ultimate arbiter of value and power. Data is more important than analytics, or algorithms, eventually. Algorithms can be emulated; analysis can be redesigned, but data cannot be invented*. Have you not seen how some firms are investing in a few strategic data sources, while others continue focused on process design or analytics tools? See The Battle For The Digital Economy Ultimately Rests Not With The Cloud, But With Data
The WSJ article explains how a Data Security law provides a mechanism for the state to define data as an asset little different from labor or capital. Data becomes an “essential state asset” that can be used to protect and further state interests. To data futurists this is obvious. There is a lovely quote in the article: “Whoever controls data will have the initiative, he [President Xi] has said in private meetings, according to the people familiar with internal discussions.”
But it was China that moved on this at the state level first. The EU and US have not quite led the way in the same vein. Yes, the EU has its market-limiting Data Strategy that conflates goals of funding an EU-limited cloud to compete with American hyper scalers (see Methods for Valuing Data). The EU data strategy wants to create its own cloud infrastructure for data processing, and a market to force data sharing with manufactured outcomes and use the result as a means for public sector data pilfering.
The US has deeper capital markets and more market freedoms across a larger, more homogenous market than the EU. These enable capital accumulation to chase competitive forces. Amazon, Google, Facebook and others came about due to the competitive forces in the market, and they exploited whatever regulation existed at the time. The EU wants to regulate its way to competitiveness, which has never worked anywhere. The US also has all its DoD and security apparatus with data-based visions and strategies to reduce risk, secure the country, and dominate the military landscape, but the private sector remains separate from this goal. Yes, individual firms have exploited data for benefits, but collectively for the state they do not. China is therefore the first nation to tie the two together: private market innovation to create the core infrastructure, aided by public funds; and state controls to augment the data market. The fact that China can dictate such laws and changes is obvious, but it’s the implication for business and natural market evolution that interests me.
The result will be that firms operating in China will learn a new way to operate that will likely lead to adaptive behavior that puts such firms at an advantage over US and EU firms. While the EU seeks to build its own walled garden and market, and the US drives a targeted public sector data strategy unlinked to private interests, China’s move looks similar in part but different. The difference is the idea that will take hold that data is an asset. Private firms in China will work with the new laws and adapt. Their practices will change in ways Western firms won’t.
Today in an American firms’ data might be worth more than its market capitalization. Ex-Gartner analyst Doug Laney noted last year in Your Company’s Data May Be Worth More Than Your Company that two airline companies were able to secure loans using some customer data that was valued more than their own market capitalization. However, no firm is allowed to recognize this asset on their balance sheet – that is until you go bust. Only then can data be valued as an asset with a monetary value and recognized. The global accounting standards are woefully out of date, and this is the key. If data could be recognized (not just treated) as an asset in balance sheets and in investment models, western firms would evolve similar to how Chinese firms are about to.
Firms operating in China will be motivated to develop new investment thesis for their IT and data and analytics investments. They will learn first how the balance sheet needs to change, and then how changes to the P&L are needed. It’s not just about new revenue streams from selling data; it’s about insurance, risk investment, and shifts in value streams away from capital and labor to first information, then software and ultimately IP. Chinese firms will explore how to and where to fund in new value-bearing assets, being their information value stream.
If the West wants to avoid falling behind China’s lead here, it needs to shake up the accounting standards boards and quickly. Such august bodies helped define how capital accumulates that drove economic growth and wealth for many years. Today those bodies slow the West down. They have explored such changes for years. But clearly, they don’t have the vision or the direction. Someone needs to step up.
* Of course, technically data can be invented. In recent times synthetic data has come to the fore. It is a technique to enrich data sets that are incomplete or short of the volume needed for an analysis. But synthetic data is a substitute with risks. It can help but it is not a total replacement for having the real data.