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ROI Expectations

  • January 05 2006, 1:00am EST
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I wonder if ROI is about to lose its popularity as a measure of success in implementing expensive IT projects. I am beginning to see cracks in the facade, which is what's driving my curiosity. I have been talking about the end of ROI for a while and, truth be told, focus on it seems to be cyclical and usually follows a period of great innovation and uptake of new products - like the Internet bubble.

You know the ROI drill. The vendor tells you about how much you can save from "investing" in the latest widget or gadget in the company sales bag, so you buy it. But then you discover that there is a one or two or - yikes! - three X (and I'm not talking Mexican beer here) multiplier for implementation, training and all the other stuff that lurks below the waterline like the Loch Ness Monster.

If you're early to the party, you never see it coming. A bit later and the industry is up in arms about ROI, demanding it as a precondition of even talking to the vendor. Maybe you've been such a vendor - I have - and it's no fun. Still there's usually a sense of "We're not going to get fooled again" in the air, and it is what it is.

Why are we always so disappointed in the repeated failure to garner good solid ROI from our investments? I can think of two reasons. One has to do with expectations and the other with the reality of infrastructure building. Let's start with infrastructure because I'm a guy and I'd rather deal with that concrete reality than with expectations and feelings - at least initially.

I was recently doing research when a friend recommended that I re-read Geoffrey Moore's Inside the Tornado, and I am glad she did. It's all there - the discussion of infrastructure that is - and it's one of those things that I had so thoroughly internalized that I thought I dreamed half of it up. Tornado adoption of products such as CRM, ERP, data warehouses and even putting PCs on every desk, require massive infrastructure build outs and the massive investments that go with them.

If you want to gauge real ROI you might have to wait years for your ship to come in. Take a look at the investment in PCs that started in the 1980s. It took a decade and a lot of network development and stringing cable through buildings before the payoff happened. But sure enough, by the mid-1990s the economy was robust, and we were discovering that we had reached a new level of productivity thanks to technology investments - one that enabled us to have growth without a lot of inflation.

Of course, there are details that I am merrily skimming over, but the big point is infrastructure; you need lots of it and it ain't cheap, but once you get there the results and the ROI can be dramatic. Just don't expect to see the ROI next week.

Okay, so now let's move on to expectations because it's here that the most work needs to be done. We have painted ourselves into a corner with a mind-set I call actuarial thinking - the idea that we can apply accounting principles to every aspect of business and that somehow we have a right to expect results to fit neatly into our quarterly and annual reports because, well, that's the accounting period after all. But as the foregoing discussion of infrastructure shows, the financial payback might easily lag the investment by years - plenty of time to ruin the career of the Bozo who thought computer networks (or CRM for that matter) were a good idea.

It's actuarial thinking that ultimately drives this need for ROI. The opposite of actuarial thinking is what, hopefully, moves a decision-maker weighing an investment in infrastructure. Many, if not most, decision-makers are smart enough to know that investments in infrastructure take time to mature. And when dealing with something new, it's often hard to figure out the right time frame. The opposite of actuarial thinking to which I refer lacks a good term and usually boils down to doing something because, intuitively - forget the spreadsheets and the accountants - you know that putting PCs on every desk or getting CRM systems before your competitors do is smart and really, really good for the bottom line.

Right now we seem to be coming out of a period of cost cutting and consolidation within many enterprises when all the technologies bought during the bubble were implemented and, yes, infrastructure was built. But we can't go on forever counting our nickels and dimes of cost savings. Growth is on the agenda again, and that's when you can expect to actually see the ROI on all those earlier investments.

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