"I think big data is so powerful that nation states will fight over how much data matters," Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google's parent Alphabet, said at a recent conference, according to Business Insider.
Others have made similar observations about data in the corporate world.
I don't disagree with this view, but I would argue that the future has already arrived.
The collection, curation, analysis, and timely use of data have become strategic considerations for governments as well as businesses. Any organization that views data-related activities as mere cost centers probably won't survive long enough to know what hit it.
Fifteen years ago, data and analytics were largely viewed as boring necessities that didn't merit much attention. Many businesses sent their data-related work offshore, hoping to spend no more than necessary on it. Many used data only for standard reports such as sales forecasts. That approach is no longer feasible.
Ask any cab driver how things are going, and he or she likely will mention Uber, which has used data to send an entire industry into a disruptive phase.
Front-line employees in the retail industry can tell you that they are experiencing shocks from the similar forces. Hundreds of U.S. brick-and-mortar stores operated by JCPenney, Payless ShoeSource, Macy's, RadioShack, and Staples are closing this year, largely because these traditional retailers haven't found a way to compete effectively with Amazon, which leverages massive amounts of data to personalize online shopping.
Businesses in many other industries, from hospitality and entertainment to utilities and banking,
are fighting to survive in an age of data Darwinism.
Governments also are facing complex new challenges. Cyberattacks have become commonplace, and we can expect more of them. "As the cost of these tools of cyberconflict comes down, the reach will expand, increasing the ease for non-state actors to mount cyberattacks," according to a Dec. 19, 2016 article in Time magazine. "A DDoS attack, a type of cyberattack that overwhelms servers with traffic, can be purchased online for as little as $10."
Cyberespionage is a growing concern as well, with many governments now collecting data for intelligence-gathering purposes - both to protect citizens and to keep an eye on them. Governments also are using data to predict where crimes are likely to occur, so they can allocate police resources more effectively.
These kinds of stories weren't making headlines 15 years ago. That's because two major things have changed since the turn of the century. One is that newer technologies now make unprecedented amounts of data available to anyone who can collect or buy it. An organization that makes cars, televisions, refrigerators or other products, for example, can insert a chip in each unit and gather extensive information about its use - and user. The same organization can buy data from outside sources; collect data from Facebook, Twitter, and Google; and gather data from customers' iPhones and Androids. Governments can and do use many of these same techniques to gather data.
But no matter how much data an organization amasses, the data won't have an impact if it can't be used. That brings up the second thing that has changed since 2000: newer technologies now enable organizations to quickly turn massive amounts of data into actionable information.
A shining example of this is the Human Genome Project. The first full human genome took 15 years and roughly $1 billion to $3 billion to complete in 2003. Thanks to advances in data and analytics, a genome sequence in 2014 could be completed in less than 24 hours at a cost of less than $1,000, according to Harvard Magazine.
In both cases - the amount of data available to us, and the ability to do something useful with it - the pace of change will continue to accelerate.
The only way to compete effectively, whether you run a nation or a corporation, is to double down on investments in data and analytics.
One key area for investment: skilled people. Talent is more essential than ever; however, it's also becoming scarcer than ever. (In part, that's because the federal government is reducing the issuance of H-1B visas to skilled foreign workers.)
Another essential area for investment: making sure you have a clear understanding of what data is valuable to your organization and then developing a vision for getting it.
If you're not investing in data and analytics and the people who can help you take best advantage of them, rest assured that your competitors are. But don't rest long. Your competitors will quickly pass you by.