27 October 2006

ROI or no ROI for KM?

I recently submitted a question to a KM mailing group about ROI. I basically wanted to obtain practical examples of KM initiatives (preferably company-wide) that have shown clear ROI in money terms.

The discussion rapidly evolved into argumentations between the ones convinced that using the old-fashioned ROI method for justifying initiatives in the world of intangibles is complete non-sense and potentially counter-productive; and the ones that believe that ROI still has an important role to play, if not for anything else, for obtaining the support of “old-fashioned” top-management.

At the time I asked my question, I was of course targeting the second group. The most virulent supporter of the “ROI is useless” view went to claim that network analysis and in particular Value Networks was the only way to go, citing Verna Allee as a leading thinker in the field. I then thought I should in fact ask her directly and via email, here is Verna’s response:

"Any major corporate investment should be able to demonstrate some kind of positive impact in either financial or non-financial terms or you need to rethink what you are doing. However, for many knowledge focused initiatives the really big story is in building strategic capability for the future - which is all about intangibles- and is not about classic ROI. Of course ROI can include non-financial returns and impacts but people do not have that understanding so I generallly avoid using the term. People need to know how to tell both kinds of stories and know when to tell them. KM practitioners have completely dropped the ball in learning the language of intangible value then they wonder why they have so much trouble getting support for their efforts. Of course a lot of managers don't think this way but if the KM people just feed into their old way of thinking they are doomed for frustration. Step up to the plate and learn to the story of value in intangible terms. If you aren't educating your leaders to this way of thinking - who will?" Verna Allee.

My reply to Verna was:
Yes Verna, that is exactly the problem for most KM practitioners (at least it is for me): we know that we should do away with old methods but we don't believe our leaders can understand our new language without some transition using their language in a new context.
Probably we underestimate them and should be more courageous.

I recommend Kaye Vivian's blog entry on this topic:

Peter-Anthony Glick