Plenty of new technologies are kicking businesses in the teeth these days. But the one that seems most troubling--hacking--may actually present an opportunity (and not just for the hackers). It's called radical sharing.

Sharing is not what most companies are keen on when it comes to their data. Cheap storage, a proliferation of sensors and platforms, as well as AI have turned large organizations into compulsive data hoarders. Worse yet, cut-throat competition and growing volatility are causing them to label every bit of data as mission critical.

The result is massive amounts of data being protected as though the company's life depended on every 0 and 1. This is a failed strategy for two reasons.

The first problem is that even as companies are attempting to secure more and more data, it's getting harder and more expensive to do so. Cybercrime is no longer a maverick's game, it's the province of organized crime and nation states (sometimes the same thing). Just ask your favorite Presidential candidate -- whether they lost or won.

Second, data hoarding ignores the potential upside of the start-ups and services growing in every vertical across the globe. Your company can hide its data from that revolution, or join it.

Put simply, there are many more companies out there attempting to capitalize on markets than you could possibly explore with your own team, no matter how brilliant and vast. What's more, most of them are hungry for the capital, scale, and access that your organization may already have.

The result is a perfect storm of missed opportunity. McKinsey research indicates that more than $3 trillion could be unlocked from the use of open data, mostly in the form of new market segments, new products and services, and improved efficiency.

For example, the Spanish bank BBVA annually hosts a "Innova Challenge Big Data" contest based on anonymous card transaction data. Their very first challenge generated 144 projects from 19 countries, which helped accelerate existing BBVA products. One of the first projects, "BBVAI," made their data service easier to understand by visualizing BBVA credit card purchases in the Madrid region's municipalities.

Additionally, it created entirely new platforms dependent on BBVA's data. These include Shopping Center Benchmarking, which allows companies to determine how effective their direct marketing strategies are, and Qkly, which helps users skip long lines in stores (among other products). Both platforms buy BBVA's data and present it in interesting new ways as a value add.

Sometimes opening your data can produce entirely new, or more profitable markets. Bitly's creators launched their product as a simple link shortener. But when they opened up their platform to developers, they saw an explosion of new uses. Now, their Bitly OneView service acts as a central hub where marketers can track all of their links. For example, they can see which links are being followed on Facebook or Twitter, across device types like iOS or Android, or by channel, such as via email or inside an app. Now, one thousand of the largest marketers in the world pay for their service.

Sharing data can also reduce or even remove costs. New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority is a frighteningly antiquated system run by powerful unions and operating under enormous debt. The brass there knew they simply wouldn't be able to respond to rising requests for apps and new-tech platforms for their customers. So in 2010 they made their data freely available to developers.

Today, New York's subway users have more than a dozen "What the heck happened to my train?" type apps to choose from, and the authority doesn't have to spend millions developing and tweaking them. More importantly, the MTA has an ongoing and externally maintained market research effort helping it to understand what kinds of resource allocation would have the biggest impact on its customer base.

Just as with Hackathons, Joint Ventures, or University Partnerships, most of the data your company is holding tight is more likely to be improved and innovated on by somebody else, or a lot of somebodies. When they do, your company is poised to scale it up for the markets your brand is already addressing, and beyond.

I experienced this firsthand with my first book, a cyberpunk novel called "Roo'd." After trying to sell it to traditional publishers (and having very little luck), I decided to open source it instead. I released it under a Creative Commons license and put it on the internet for anyone to download for free. This was in April of 2008.

A few weeks later the iPhone was finally hacked to allow third-party software (this was before the App Store), and one fan released the first ebook reader on the platform. It included exactly one book: Tarzan.

When I offered him my book, he loaded it up immediately, and within a month it had received 20,000 downloads and was being distributed on innumerable other platforms. Eight years later I'm still getting checks for copies bought on Amazon's print-on-demand platform.

The point here isn't that giving your content away will always create a bestseller. It's that sharing your content creates opportunities you couldn't have anticipated ahead of time.

Which isn't to say that all data is suitable for sharing. Coke shouldn't publish its secret formula (yet). But choosing data which you aren't immediately monetizing isn't rocket science, and mobilizing relationships with potential partners isn't expensive. After all, if you're a company that has achieved scale, you've already secured the very thing that the majority of startups want. You just have to offer them a chance to provide you with new ventures.

As in the New York Times bestseller, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up," it's really just a matter of holding onto whatever your company absolutely must keep secured, and sharing everything else.

The alternative is to continue to attempt to defend your data against a planet full of criminals and hacktivists eager to liberate it for their own ends. The choice is yours.

Published on: Jul 10, 2017