A lot of smart people are sharing their thoughts about digital technologies and the value of the data they yield. In a recent Wired magazine article, Melinda Gates pointed out that the corporate application of data is evident in the music her kids listen to, the movies Netflix recommends, and the ads we see. Yet, governments and development organizations have not fully embraced the use of data for socioeconomic growth. She suggested, however, this will change in the coming years; the developing world will see huge advances in health, education, and agriculture, driven in part by digital technologies and data-driven decision-making.
In her role as founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she sees a growing number of governments that are building digital information systems to improve health outcomes and decision making. But recall that Ms. Gates’ article begins with observations about successful media and retail applications of data, all coming from the private sector. Indeed, corporate partners can bring significant value to large-scale ICT solutions that support governmental and development aims. For instance, multinational technology and pharmaceutical companies can get involved at various stages of the value chain:
- R&D – funding labs and conducting highly localized product development
- Solution Design – providing enterprise-grade design that links with legacy systems and supports scale
- Sales and Distribution – utilizing distribution networks and channel partners
- Support – providing training and support for developing-country partners
For corporate involvement in development activities to be sustainable and scalable, there needs to be profitable business opportunity, albeit through a longer-term return on investment. Companies can help mitigate long-term costs and justify earlier engagement through strategically timed internal partnerships. CSR, government affairs, and corporate foundation teams can be more active in early-stage initiatives (pre-pilot or pilot) or at initial stages of product development (such as R&D), where risk is higher and the time to revenue is longer. Business units and channel partners, with near-term pressures to generate income, can bring in sales, distribution, manufacturing, and support expertise to scale initiatives later, when revenue opportunities are more imminent. The need for well-coordinated handoffs between business groups raises the importance of support from the very top of the corporate structure. When these internal partnerships lead to long-term, profitable engagements with governments and development organizations, CEOs will speak of the power and utility of data for development with the same conviction as Melinda Gates.