On July 31, 2013, the US Bureau of Economic Analysis will release, for the first time, GDP figures categorizing research and development as fixed investment. It will join software in a new category called intellectual-property products.
In our knowledge-based economy, this is a sensible move that brings GDP accounting closer to economic reality. And while that may seem like an arcane shift relevant only to a small number of economists, the need for the change reflects a broader mismatch between our digital economy and the way we account for it. This problem has serious top-management implications.
To understand the mismatch, you need to understand what we call digital capital—the resources behind the processes key to developing new products and services for the digital economy. Digital capital takes two forms. The first is traditionally counted tangible assets, such as servers, routers, online-purchasing platforms, and basic Internet software. They appear as capital investment on company books. Yet a large and growing portion of what’s powering today’s digital economy consists of a second type of digital capital—intangible assets.
They are manifold: the unique designs that engage large numbers of users and improve their digital experiences; the digital capture of user behavior, contributions, and social profiles; the environments that encourage consumers to access products and services; and the intense big-data and analytics capabilities that can guide operations and business growth. They also include a growing range of new business models for monetizing digital activity, such as patents and processes that can be licensed for royalty income, and the brand equity that companies like Google or Amazon.com create through digital engagement.
Conventional accounting treats these capabilities not as company investments but as expenses, which means that their funding isn’t reflected as capital. Since the amounts spent aren’t amortized, they take a large bite out of reported income. Spending on those capabilities sometimes should be treated as capital, though, since they can be long-lived. Amazon.com’s development of an internal search process that promotes recurring sales or the efforts of Netflix to fine-tune personal recommendations to increase video viewing and retain customers are certainly more than expenses. Such capabilities, which are complex to build and replicate, can often help companies create enduring competitive strengths.
We’re acutely aware of misguided efforts to justify sky-high valuations during the late-1990s Internet bubble by claiming that finance and accounting fundamentals were no longer relevant. We also recognize that we’re far from the first to note the relationship among intangibles, company-level growth and productivity, and overall economic growth.1 What we want to suggest here is that those relationships, which once represented a small minority of business activities, are becoming the rule in the digital economy. In fact, much of today’s digital spending could pay for long-lived intangible assets that will define the competitive landscape going forward.2 The rising stakes are seen in the copyright battles between Internet and consumer-electronics companies and in major spending on patent portfolios.
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Image: CC by Enkhtuvshin’s 5DmkII 2.0.