Data as a Strategic AssetBy
Finance and accounting professionals must lead the strategic conversation around high-quality, data-driven insights.
Within any organization, a leader’s role is to identify and clearly communicate the organization’s vision, mission, and value proposition. Based on that vision, short-, mid-, and long-term strategic objectives are determined, and the vision is seen through into execution. As part of the strategic initiative, contingency plans should be proactively developed for conditions when the business environment changes unexpectedly. Employees are then empowered to tie the strategy to key performance indicators (KPIs) relevant to every vital part of the organization. As Alexander Peiniger, CEO of quintly, says, “In the end, you should only measure and look at the numbers that drive action, meaning that the data tells you what you should do next.”
Data is the operative word there. Outcome-driven data strategy is the key to the success of this entire process. Jim Johnson, a former CFO of Adaptive Insights, takes Peiniger’s advice one step further, saying, “Data is the lifeblood of an organization. It separates opinions from facts and can provide a competitive advantage for an organization. From knowing who your customers are and what they are doing with your products, to understanding how profitable a line of business or geography is, more companies are looking to the CFO to define the metrics and measurements that will be tracked to manage growth, enable agility, and ensure long-term sustainability.”
It’s essential to create a solid data management system to ensure timely access to high-quality organizational data to produce these financial and nonfinancial KPI measurements and other necessary high-quality information. When data is missing, it should be a priority to create processes to systematically capture the data, focusing on timeliness, quality, and all the other data-management aspects.
The digital revolution began around the world in the latter half of the 20th Century. Current conversations about data consistently include “data analytics,” “Big Data,” and “data as an asset.” How do we define data in the modern world? The dictionary will tell you that data is a noun, plural of Latin “datum,” and the word has been used since the 17th Century. Then and now, data is a raw material for creating information and is a fundamental element for decision making.
Over time, the pace of data evolution has continued to increase. When IBM released its first computers in 1952, accountants became early adopters. With the digital revolution intensifying, organizations started converting and saving paper documents into digital formats (digitizing). New technologies developed, transforming manual processes into digital ones (digitalizing). All these changes exponentially multiplied the quantity of digital data.
In October 2020, McKinsey published a survey titled “How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever.” The survey identified that “digital adoption has taken a quantum leap at both the organizational and industry levels,” stating that “the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digitization of customer interactions by several years.” For accounting and finance professionals, paper documents and manual processes became significantly less common during the last year, when most accounting departments were forced to work remotely due to the pandemic lockdowns.
DATA AS AN ASSET
Many C-level executives, managers, and accounting and finance professionals agree that enterprise data is an asset. But there’s still rarely a recognition of financial and nonfinancial data as a strategically important asset. Without data management and analytics, the data’s quality is often lacking. IBM discovered that bad data costs $3.1 trillion annually in the United States alone.
The creation and maintenance of any important asset requires significant investment. Investment into data as an asset involves investment into data strategy, data management, and data analytics. As part of the enterprise data strategy, it’s vital to know a great deal: where the data is located, who is responsible for it, how it is classified by security and sensitivity level, what its intended purpose and level of granularity are, how different users would interact with it, whether the data is exploratory or used for statutory compliance, and how it helps performance management.
The efforts must encompass all data-management elements, including master data management (stewardship, security, validation, etc.), data governance (business process management, regulatory compliance, risk management, policies, procedures, etc.), and data-quality management (architecture, integration, proofing, etc.).
DOCUMENTING DATA’S VALUE
Currently, it isn’t common to recognize the value of enterprise data on financial statements. What is data’s value? Some assets are more valuable than others. For example, raw data and scientifically analyzed data have different values. Similarly, the same type of data of varying qualities would be of different value. What are the ways to monetize data internally and externally? Should or could organizations sell their data ethically, and what are the current regulations around the data? What data is an organization collecting or not collecting? These are all questions to consider as an accounting and finance professional.
Further, what kind of asset is enterprise data, and should it be reported on the organization’s financial statements? The concept of “data is the new oil” became popularized after The Economist published an article in 2017 focused on the titans of the digital era (Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) titled “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.” But does the oil analogy translate to companies outside of the Fortune 500 and S&P 500 lists?
Samuel Flender, a data scientist, argues that “data is the new oil” is applicable only for businesses that invest in data management and data analytics. He points out that making sense of the organization’s data requires significant capital and time investments. Data provides value only with “careful planning, engineering, and research.” Also, Flender points out that contrary to oil as a finite material, data will be an exponentially infinite material for as long as humans exist.
As for categorizing data, Henna A. Karna points out in her article “Data Is a ‘Tangible’ Asset” that “in the right hands, [data] is often as valuable as land, buildings, and equipment.” But data could be categorized as an intangible asset, too, according to Wyatt Partners. Their article “How to Value Data as an Asset” advocates that “The more an organisation focuses on managing data as an asset, the better the likely return. In order to do that, data ownership in organisations should be centralized like any other major asset class would and form a central part of the strategic viewpoint.”
DATA STEWARDS’ RESPONSIBILITY
Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO, said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Without reliable data, the information provided is merely an opinion. Whether you’re a member of the C-suite or an individual contributor, it’s critical to recognize financial and nonfinancial data as a strategic asset. To receive high-quality, data-driven insights, organizations must align their business strategy with the outcome-driven data strategy and invest in data management and data analytics.
As accounting leaders, we must actively contribute to the discussions around data management, valuation of data, and recognition of enterprise data value as an asset on the financial reports. We must focus on providing value by producing high-quality, data-driven insights through applying data analytics to ensure organizational success.
All views, thoughts, and opinions expressed belong solely to the author and not to the author’s employer.