It sometimes seemed a long way to go to find oneself engrossed in a conversation on credit referencing for small and medium sized enterprizes. However, around 3 pm Hong Kong time last Thursday I heard a conference light up with really vibrant debate, sourced from all around the Asia-Pacific region, on a subject which at once focussed regional attention and yet was symptomatic of the state of ePublishing and Information Solutions in a global networked society as a whole. The event was the Business Information Industry Association of Asia-Pacific, holding one of its sessions of joint user-provider debate within the framework of the newly-launched Online Information Asia Pacific. Day 1 of the main conference had addressed wider themes, with an excellent introduction by Stephen Mak, the Hong Kong CIO, Stephen Arnold on Search, and effective work from case studies in Thailand on Web 2.0 in the context of knowledge capture and from Pebbleroad in Singapore on Knowledge Capture. My own contribution on the Device Wars are attached in the download section of this blog.

Outside of a full conference room were some 90 exhibitors and over two days around 1000 delegates from across the region. I hope that Incisive Media are encouraged and keep plugging away at this. The old Online conference in London is now 33 years old, and there is no doubt in my mind that in the middle of that run it was a critical meeting place for industry and users. Some of the discussions I heard in Hong Kong had exactly the cathartic flavour of those vital days of industry self-discovery. As Steve Goodall of Outsell (also a sponsor) noted in his BIIA regional and global review, this is the most significant growth area in global information markets. Even newspapers sell here!

But Day 2, for me at least, focussed on the BIIA Forum, which I attended as Chairman and where, when the conference concluded, I glowed with pride at the happy accident that had led to my five year involvement in this organization, in support of my old friend and collaborator, Joachim Bartels, BIIA’s founder and now its chief executive. It was his inspiration to set up regional fora of users and suppliers, a most appropriate one in a region of such huge diversity and different cultural styles. Looking around a room that included users from trading organizations as diverse as Merck or National Semiconductor or Cargill, interested parties like the IFC (World Bank) and the Peoples Bank of China, and vendors of services and solutions ranging from Thomson Reuters and Lexis Nexis to SinoTrust, Veda Advantage, D&B (sponsors and also participants from several countries) and Standard and Poor’s one could appreciate the range of likely debate. It was when the voices began and the questions flowed – from Hong Kong itself (including an enthusiastic group from the Chinese University of Hong Kong), from Thailand, from Singapore, from Australasia, from India, from China, from Taiwan, augmented by interested participants from Europe and the USA, that the regional magic and the connectivity to global information market trends took fire.

The issues surfaced innocently enough. In a topic devoted to eliminating information asymmetries it quickly became clear that for many participants business information was becoming increasingly controversial. There were major issues concerning government-held information in the region, symptomatic both of culture and control, and of privacy and data protection legislation. Everyone recognized the role of business information services in creating value, and the utility of those services in creating credit referencing services which enabled the region’s huge and growing trade. Yet there was also an air of discontent: current content was becoming commoditized, and in particular, it was becoming much more difficult to provide reliable and verifiable information about small and medium-sized enterprizes. And the problems were not confined to banks and finance houses: clearly identifying SMEs (or even defining them) was a problem for all traders in the market, especially as SMEs are generally seen as the engine of growth in any economic recovery. How well I recall this debate in the European Union in the 1990s, and how frustrating it was that nothing could ever be done at any level to alleviate it. I settled in for an interesting but fruitless discussion.

Which was not how things turned out. Instead real energy was devoted to ways of tackling this. One party, in which I found myself a dissident, sought remediation through re-regulation. Information control was the answer, and this had to be accompanied by better benchmarking to define what information should always be available on differently defined enterprizes at different sizes. Enforcement of disclosure was the stumbling block. Meanwhile on the other side, the counter argument that the internet was an economy unto itself, where every trader left an impression, seemed to me to have growing attraction. The implication here was that increasingly, as we move about the network buying and selling things, we should want to have our efforts noted and scored, so that the favourable or otherwise impression of our activities on everyone else could be known. This would be a competitive activity, and risk management value would migrate to those who were best at mining the network’s information yields.

And it was this that hung in my mind on the long trip back to London. We have now reached the stage in a networked society where the source of all information about participants in that society lies increasingly in the network itself. We now have the tools, in data mining and entity extraction, to locate and interrogate both structured and unstructured content. Increasingly semantic enquiry and things like this week’s announcement of MarkLogic’s experiment in this area give confidence that we are at the application and not the speculative level. Then think of the advances in workflow modelling noted here from the most major players like Lexis and Thomson Reuters. I do not seriously doubt any longer that the answers to most information services development questions are already known, because the content needed to answer them already lies, though under-exposed, in the network. And Asia-Pacific remains undoubtedly the most stimulating part of the world if you want to think about Next Steps.

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