IT’s role in protecting digital assets

Several years ago, as the Internet bubble was reaching its maximum circumference, a cashed-out colleague delivered this unasked-for assessment of my career trajectory: “For a smart guy, you really aren’t all that successful.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You don’t have that many people reporting to you,” he explained.

The comment from my “career counselor” came out of the Industrial Age, which was somewhat marked by whether you could “manage” the resources in this case, workers that made the factory run. But today, in the Information Age, career success will be marked by what we can get from information: Will you be able to create, distribute and obtain value from ideas?

Everyone knows that profitability is no longer solely a result of the factories a company operates or the raw materials it extracts. As Seth Godin, co-author of Unleashing the Ideavirus, explains: “We’re shipping ideas, not stuff.”

That brings us to the topic of intellectual property. The world has changed so much that intellectual property is the most important source of value in the Information Age economy. But what many IT leaders don’t appreciate is that intellectual property is a true game-changer. Our craft will never be the same. So, IT leaders face the following five roles as they prepare for this new world:

The first and most basic IT role in an economy driven by intellectual property is its distribution. We have to build and maintain the roads that carry ideas. We have been pretty good at building those roads. But the jury is out regarding the kind of job we’re doing of maintaining them.

The second is protecting intellectual property. Currently, three per cent to four per cent of the IT budget is devoted to digital security. But companies that understand the importance of intellectual property are tripling this allocation.

This might have been a style point when we were blasting only data around the network. But now that we’re moving intellectual property, the stakes have risen. Executives are asking IT leaders, “Can you protect our intellectual property? If we put the digital source of our economic advantage on the cyberroad you have built, will we be safe from carjackers and drive-by defacers?” Have any of you responded, “Yes, I guarantee your intellectual property will be safe?”

Have any of you put a hard and fast date on when you can guarantee the safety of intellectual property? Today’s threats may not match the organizations or skill sets we have in place. So, we must change those organizations and upgrade those skill sets.

An interim step might be to ask users to play a much larger role in protecting intellectual property. There can be little argument that the digital world would be much improved if all senior executives were required to enroll in some kind of information protection program. And we must hold each employee responsible for protecting intellectual property. But this will be difficult because many executives lack a digital common sense.

The final three roles of the IT leader in intellectual property will be in merchandising (arranging the ideas to be sold), pricing (establishing fees to pay for the ideas) and the collection of rent.

These last three shouldn’t be too hard; it’s where the dot-comers began their adventure. And maybe you can hire one to fill those roles and he can report to you.

May is a Computerwrold (U.S.) columnist and a senior member of Toffler Associates Inc., an executive advisory firm in Manchester, Mass. Contact him at