Napoleon Bonaparte once claimed that "war is ninety percent information". In the battlefield that is the world of modern business, this motto has never rung more true.
While Canada's large, established corporations have been increasingly recognizing and capitalizing on the economic advantages that access to precise market data provides, the Government of Canada has taken steps in the opposite direction over the past five years. Since their majority win in the federal election this fall, the Liberal Government has already begun taking steps to significantly increase the role of the federal government in the provision of data to the Canadian public. This will not only improve public policy decisions, but it will also help small business owners and entrepreneurs compete with well-established corporations that already have a wealth of information at their fingertips.
The Story So Far
On July 13, 2010, Stephen Harper's Conservative Government announced their plan to cancel the mandatory long-form census and replace it with the voluntary National Household Survey (NHS), asserting that the census was an intrusion of Canadians' privacy (The Globe and Mail). Concerns over this change were raised by a number of experts and groups, including The Canadian Chamber of Commerce (on behalf of the 200,000 businesses it represents across the country)(The Globe & Mail). Statistics Canada's then head statistician, Munir Sheikh, argued the importance of the consistent and thorough collection of data from each Canadian every 5 years, stating that the alternative, the NHS, would lead to "a downward spiral in the quality of social and household data over time" (Maclean's).
The past five years have validated Mr. Sheikh's initial concerns. Though the first collection of the NHS cost approximately 22 million more than the last long-form census in 2006, it has failed to deliver data to the level of detail and accuracy of its predecessor (Maclean's). In the NHS user guide, Statistics Canada warns of the distortions that accompanied its voluntary aspect: "caution must be exercised when NHS estimates are compared with estimates produced from the 2006 Census long form, especially when the analysis involves small geographies" (OCUL). Due to the inconsistent and imprecise data the NHS provided, many businesses had to abandon Statistics Canada as a source of demographic, social, and economic information.
In their 2015 election campaign, the Liberal Party platform promised to reinstate the Canadian long-form census as soon as possible, and shortly after their majority win they confirmed that it will return in 2016. It remains to be seen if and how the census might be redesigned as an instrument to support growth and innovation in the Canadian economy.
The Winners and The Losers
The world is becoming increasingly data driven, making accurate and up-to-date information essential to successful decision making in business. It has never been more important for a firm to know its consumers -
"exactly who they are, and exactly what they want". Furthermore, entrepreneurs must be able to identify gaps in the market that their product or service can fill and take immediate and precise action to meet the needs of their target market.
Data analytics has been one of the fastest growing job markets in the 21st century. Large firms are investing huge amounts of money and time into the collection and analysis of big data. As of the beginning of 2015, all of Canada's major banks have instated a chief data officer, reporting either directly to the company's CEO or CMO (PWC). In recent years, IBM has restructured their entire strategy to become a leader in Canadian data-analytics, and other companies, including Rogers Communications, Scotiabank, and McCain Foods, have all invested heavily in their market analysis departments (The Globe and Mail). In April of 2015, McCain Foods and IBM came to a $40 million deal, agreeing that the new analysis would help the food producer to improve its data collection, capacity, and security (IBM).
With large companies competing for a better understanding of their target consumers than ever before, entrepreneurs and small business owners are at a huge disadvantage. They do not have the means to make multi-million dollar deals with big-data giants to gain detailed consumer information, and they cannot dedicate entire departments of employees to market analysis.
While it would be nonsensical to write off the role the internet plays in allowing anyone to gain a certain degree of knowledge on almost any market they choose, the high quality and conclusive source of information on the Canadian population provided by the long-from census is essential and unrivaled. This competitive advantage has left entrepreneurs and small business owners unarmed against the powerful organizations they are expected to compete against.
A country's capacity for innovation is having an increasingly large impact on its level of economic competitiveness. Canada, having relied heavily on natural resources in the past, is currently behind in this sector "ranking 15th out of 16 peer countries on research and development spending". (How Canada Performs). Moreover, creating an environment that enables entrepreneurship and supports small businesses is the key to fostering innovation. Over half of small Canadian businesses adopt and implement new technology significantly faster than their larger competitors (The Globe and Mail). As a result, the government should reinvest in the collection and distribution of data to the public through the long-form census and other data collection initiatives; the information they provide has the potential to directly benefit the most innovative members of the Canadian economy, allowing Canada to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
The return of the long-form census will reintroduce a supply of accurate and precise data to the public domain, but this could be taken a step further. Perhaps the real challenge for the new government will not simply lie in reinstating the old census but in finding out how to provide an even greater amount of valuable information to Canadians. Instead of rushing to reinstate the exact long-form census that Canada parted with in 2006, the Government and Statistics Canada should do some data analysis of their own and engineer the census as a weapon that can be used to equip the smaller players in Canadian business for battle.