Information is an asset that can be measured in the same way as a footprint: by its length, breadth and depth.

What information assets does your company have?

To put it another way: what’s your company’s information footprint?

Information footprint is a metaphor for getting at the same question, write Jeffrey L. Sampler (China Europe International Business School) and Michael J. Earl (University of Oxford) in the Winter 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. Whichever way you come at it, they argue, “IT is so available and affordable for most organizations that, increasingly, information has the potential to be a valuable asset — one worth managing as a product, not merely a byproduct.”

In “What’s Your Information Footprint?,” Sampler and Earl make the case for distinguishing between “technology” and “information.” “Technology is the enabler, but information is the real source of value creation,” they write. “Information technology is very visible, and companies spend large amounts of money on it. However, information is the less-visible but high-potential beneficiary of the technology, as modern digital technologies significantly increase the amount and scope of information we can gather and use.”

Before a company can use its information for everything from operations to innovation, however, it needs to understand what information it has access to. Sampler and Earl propose the framework of the footprint for understanding what kinds of information a company can obtain.

A footprint has length, breadth and depth, and so too does information within an organization. “Length is the extent to which information is deployed outside the organization’s boundary to support existing business operations,” Sampler and Earl write. “Depth is the degree to which information is deployed inside the organization to improve existing operations.” And breadth “is the degree to which information is being deployed as the key resource or springboard to enter new markets or develop new products or services.”

Understanding information breadth, for instance, helps a company understand how well it has used its information resources to be, essentially, entrepreneurial in seeking out new products or entering new markets. The authors write: “A simple but powerful question that many organizations should ask themselves in today’s competitive environment is: How many new businesses or how much additional revenue have we achieved from exploiting information? This is at least one measure of how extensively the breadth dimension of the information footprint is being developed.”

“All companies can and should think of information as an asset,” they conclude. “We think the day may come when executives speak of ‘return on information’ as readily as return on investment and return on traditional assets.”

This article draws from “What’s Your Information Footprint?,” by Jeffrey L. Sampler (China Europe International Business School) and Michael J. Earl (University of Oxford), which appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review .