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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2 Comments so far

  1. Phil Cotter on March 31, 2011 22:47

    Oh David where to begin? A topic that continues to exercise some of the information industries finest minds and one in my humble opinion that continues to raise as many questions as it presents potential answers.

    In trying to define a solution to this issue, you first need to consider how opposing forces have an impact on shaping the information available on SMEs. In many countries the government has followed a policy of reducing red tape to encourage SMEs to flourish. This has included in many cases reducing or indeed removing the need for SMEs to make information about their business publicly available. Whilst this policy may have reduced the costs of running an SME it has had unintended consequences which may be more costly in the long term for SMEs. One aspect of this is that because there is a shortage of independently verified information for SMEs many of them find it difficult to get access to bank and trade credit. In essence the old conundrum ” How do I get a loan? Establish a good credit record. How do I establish a good credit record? Get a loan.”

    For many years credit reference agencies have utilised a wide range of sources to create as accurate a picture of SMEs as possible. These sources have included purchasing information from directory providers, proprietary data gathering and where the agencies have access to the data and it’s use is permissible by law, utilising the data of the proprietors as consumers to assist in making a range of decisions regarding the authenticity and credit worthiness of the business they run. However the decline in the use of directories and increasing regulation regarding the use of personal data present a continual challenge.

    Whilst conceptually the notion that the information needed to bridge the gap in the understanding of SMEs is contained within the network in reality it presents a wide range of challenges when trying to access and utilise the data. In many instances the information is contained in closed networks. Using networks in it’s widest meaning this ranges from EBay to the billing systems of organisations supplying services to SMEs. In the case of EBay even if I could gain access to the data, how reliable is it? Are customer reviews a proxy for credit history? Could I rely on the data for KYC ?

    Today there is a wide range of technology that enables me to crawl the Internet and gather data on SMEs, their owners, their customers and their suppliers. But can I use it? How can I be sure I am not infringing another organisations IPR or In using the data I am compliant with data protection and privacy legislation?

    So is there a way forward? I believe so but it requires collaboration between the governments, banks,major trade credit providers and the credit reference agencies.

    Governments should make publicly available a register of SMEs in the country with basic information such as Company Name, Trading Address and potentially owners name and address. If a specific register does not exist it could be extracted from tax or VAT records ( there’s an old chestnut!).

    The banks should contribute credit histories for SMEs as they do for consumers, some steps have already been taken in this direction in some markets.

    Major trade credit providers should consider contributing payment history data to cross industry data sharing schemes. Again this exists in some markets but typically as proprietary schemes run by the credit reference agencies.

    Credit reference agencies need to commit to investment to create accurate data, analytical services and delivery solutions that enable information and decisions to be embedded in their customers workflow. They should also take the lead in educating SMEs on the importance of accurate data and a good credit reference.

    If SMEs are to be the future drivers of economic growth an environment that enables other companies to trade with them with confidence and banks to lend to them with confidence needs to be created. Whilst the network may appear to contain the elements required to create this environment it is unlikely that it will deliver not least because much of the information required is not available to the network but sat securely behind the firewalls of big business and government.

  2. Observations from the Business Information Forum 2011 | on April 15, 2013 08:29

    […] To read our Chairman’s blog click on this link. This entry was posted in BIIA News, Member, Member News, Users of Information and tagged business information, Business Information Forum 2011. Bookmark the permalink. ← Baidu Develops Web Browser BIIA at Online-Information Asia-Pacific Conference and Exhibit → […]