Business needs a new model for data sharing

A new risk is arising in the business world, the result of its voracious appetite for data.

Most companies are now aware of the benefits they can extract from their customers' personal details, and are working on ways to collect more, use it for market insights and to hone their offerings to individual customers.

But people are becoming more knowledgeable about how their data is used and misused, and distrustful over companies' intentions when they ask for information. Data is becoming a factor in how brands are perceived among consumers, and for some organisations it could soon turn toxic.

Surveys have provided evidence of public scepticism. A Survey on Attitudes to Personal and Sensitive Data, published last year by the Global Research Business Network, showed that for most types of organisation, public and private sector, considerably more people in the UK felt a distinct mistrust than trust in how their data would be used.

Similarly, an EU-wide Eurobarometer survey published in June showed that 67% were concerned about not having complete control over the information they provided online, and only 20% felt they were always informed about the conditions for collection of their data.

There has also been anecdotal evidence of a trend towards deliberately providing incorrect data and obfuscating over details when possible. The result is information with no real value to a business.

While sharing personal data can often provide benefits to the consumer and the business, it is not working particularly well, and with the growing mistrust it is in danger of getting a lot worse. There are also fears that the growth of the Internet of Things, which will provide data from a plethora of connected devices, will intensify questions over how it is used and create a new range of problems.

This threatens to undermine the benefits, and there is a need to develop a new model for sharing data that gives consumers new choices.

One problem is a lack of transparency. Marketing teams are always hungry for more customer data, often ask for information that is not relevant to a transaction, are not clear about how it will be used, and sometimes make it available to others about whom the customer has no knowledge.

It can provide short term benefits in terms of more sales and an increasing reach into the market; but as the public comes to understand more it also fuels mistrust. A press report on a dubious use of customer data can damage a brand reputation, and people will look at demands for data with increasing scepticism, even deciding to step back from a transaction when they think it becomes excessive.

In response, businesses could take a more measured and transparent approach to collecting data, requesting fewer details and clearly explaining how they use the data and the limits they impose. However, most would argue that they do so now, and unless something fundamentally changes it will always be an uphill struggle to change the mindsets that hoard data.

The other problem derives from the individual's sense of not having control over their data, compounded by the perception that not offering it up will leave them increasingly cut off from services.

The solution is in placing them back in control in a way that will facilitate sharing; control for the individual, better access to more data for the organisation. This does not have to involve a myriad of settings for control or encouraging people to minimise their data footprint, but entails the creation of a new industry of personal data management that would foster a more positive perception.

There is a potential for personal data banks that can hold our details, to be shared with business or public authorities when there we choose. It requires strong security mechanisms, and rules that users can set for themselves and within a framework of regulation; but it can provide a step towards making people more comfortable in passing on their data.

Entrepreneurs are developing these as independent entities, but businesses could also provide stores for customers to keep their data, only release it when they wish, and even make it available to other organisations. It would require a carefully constructed technical architecture, an articulation of the organisation's requirements and a data strategy permeated with trust. This is a big demand, but it could pay massive dividends in the future.

This is still an aspiration, and it would take three to five years to develop and embed it within business. It needs companies prepared to take a leap of faith, and early adopters to provide momentum. It requires a degree of bravery, but those who do take a lead will be able to claim a large stake in reaping the benefits.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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