Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 01/91 item 01 - scanned

Are you a solo Mac user, or part of a group? The reason I ask is because I've just been to a workshop run by the Society of Information Management which has been discussing ways of measuring the business value of information technology. I thought you'd like to hear about it, but I didn't want to bore you with something irrelevant.

The point is that 60 US executives were grilled about the value of IT in their firms and guess what their consensus was? "There was no traceable value from the implementation of information systems." Since most of the delegates to the workshop were IS managers, this caused some concern and helped to focus their minds wonderfully on the task at hand. Imagine, no traceable value.

Assuming that although a few firms could trace some value, others perceived IT as a loss-making activity. The speakers focused heavily on the word 'traceable', suggesting that the value was there but that it couldn't be traced. Or, if it was being traced, this fact wasn't being communicated effectively. Have you ever tried to measure the impact your Mac has made on the people you serve?

In business, the only important measure of success is the impact of your activities on your customers. Serve them better, then the benefits should filter down to the bottom line. This should be true of individuals too. Has your Mac enabled you to serve your 'customers' (spouse, children, boss, employee, church, scout troop or whatever) better?

Information systems departments have traditionally begged for money from their companies by minutely analysing their cost of operation and then asking for an uplift based on expansion of services and price inflation. It hasn't occurred to most of them to even consider themselves a contributor to the company's bottom line. But there are two ways of doing this.

The quick way is to ask what it would cost to replicate your service if you weren't there? The answer can be measured in people, paper, storage, accommodation and delays. The slow way, but a more persuasive one for the board, is to say: "This is how we affect the service our company gives." After all, anyone could tell you what its clients are looking for, even if they don't always get it.

In my case, the editor wants copy of a certain quality, in a certain form, delivered on schedule. As long as I keep that up, I should stay in a job. My real customers, though, are you. If the editor starts getting whinges from the readers, then the 'certain quality' element has to be revised, or I'm fired.

To relate this to a normal business, the sales department might be a client of the IS department. The equivalent of my editor, if you like. The point is that the MIS people could flog themselves to death trying to satisfy the department's need for sales analyses, but still not improve the company's sales one jot. The important thing is to find ways of making the customer love the company more and therefore buy more goods or services. That's the equivalent of me writing for you, rather than for the editor. It's a change of perspective, but a very important one.

Most IS managers would run a mile, faced with such an uncertain measure of their worth. How do you calculate it? Surely so many other factors are involved - booms, slumps, Christmas, changing fashion - that precise measurements are impossible. Well, this is true, but if you identify the key buying factors which will make customers prefer you to any other company, then you're making a start. If the sales and marketing folk don't know what's important to potential customers, then one has to ask how they expect the business to survive anyway. So, having identified the key buying factors, it is a relatively simple matter to establish what the company has to do to meet those requirements. (If you're still with me, this applies to individuals too. 'A good read' might be your key 'buying' factor for this column. 'More time with you' might be your other half's key buying factor.) These can be translated into yardsticks against which to measure your own or your company's behaviour.

To take a business example, a key buying factor may be 'quick response'. The yardstick might be 'produce a quotation within 20 minutes'. By supplying a sales agent with a portable computer containing the right software and reference material, calculations can be made instantly and quotations produced on the spot. If the buying factor has been correctly identified, then the chances of getting the business have been maximised. Why not take a look at your customers: is your Mac helping them love you more?