It was late January and I was sitting at the KPMG office in Canary Wharf. I thought it would be great to create a list of all engagements I have worked on over the years, see the insights generated, evaluate the problems we solved, and the people we engaged with. A few hours later, having gone through different IT systems and databases, I had a reasonably good list of all engagements.
I could have easily gone through it and listed out the best piece of analysis we did or the best slide we developed, but there was no way anyone else in the firm could replicate that. Not unless they worked in the same engagements. In fact, I barely remember most things I did in 2013 when I joined KPMG. So, if I forget, does it mean these insights will also be gone for good?
Fast forward half a year and I’m sitting in my study room in Edinburgh, wondering if by having everyone working remotely, knowledge-sharing and codification are at the risk of becoming even more sporadic. I am not alone in having this type of tacit knowledge, most employees have. And many businesses probably don’t realise the value that depends on this type of human capital, which they stand to lose if key employees walked out of the door one day.
Human capital is just one of the many types of intangible assets that is increasingly at risk.
Over the past few months, I have had dozens of conversations with IP lawyers, HR specialists and brand gurus from across different industries, repeating the same thing – intellectual property, human capital and reputation have become more valuable than ever, and many organisations struggle to keep them safe. The value of these assets can reach trillions of dollars globally. According to some estimates, it already accounts for as much as 85% of the total business value across industries. It’s very difficult for me to put a number on it; accountants and finance specialists are still debating the best ways of quantifying the impact.
What I know for sure, however, is that business leaders will have to get much closer to truly understand intangible assets. This is particularly important in a post COVID-19 environment, where businesses are more prone to make reputational mistakes and most people are working from their kitchens and living rooms. There is no simple answer on how to become an expert in safeguarding intangible assets but I think that these five actions would be a good place to start:
- Figure out the total intangible value of your organisation: Do you know, for example, how valuable your customer relationships are?
- Determine which intangibles are critical to your business success: It might be that patent you applied for last year, or it might be your culture.
- Perform ‘war gaming’ exercises and horizon scanning to test your resilience: Imagine someone deletes all the data you keep on the cloud; what happens then? How do you manage damage control and mitigate this threat?
- Assess your ability to monitor any value changes over time and assign each asset a clear risk owner: One can’t afford to leave this stuff to inexperienced staff members as a tick-box exercise. Be vigilant in monitoring changes in the value of your assets and act on it.
- Check if there are risks you cannot deal with within your organisation and evaluate what financial solutions may be available: I speak with insurers every day and they genuinely want to find ways to mitigate some of these risks, so make sure you explore that.
Looking at how the economic landscape has evolved over the years, the message is quite simple – there is no real way to be a winning business unless you take good care of your intangible assets.