Enterprise 2.0 and ROI : forget the “whether” and focus on the “how”.

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Summary : even if the concep of ROI, in its traditional sense, hardly hardly works for enterprise 2.0, overlooking the question of tangible benefits tha should be expected is impossible. But the reasonnings on this issue suffer from a noticeable bias : technology is assessed in the current context while it needs organizational and management changes to deliver its effects. So there are few chances to have a solid demonstration if the focus is kept on the existence of ROI without a joint reflexion on how to make it happen.

The ROI of Enterprise 2.0 is interesting because it’s at the same time unavoidable and a problem that’s impossible to solve without rethinking the whole paradigm of value creation.

First, I’d like state something. I’m using the word ROI because it’s the one we all use to discuss this point while I think that “measurable improvement” would be more relevant.

Then, I’ll start with a metaphor. If a logical and rational thinking makes us deduct that an engine is the best solution to make a car move and that, despite your car has one that works, your car don’t move when you accelerate, it may mean two things. The first is that ou forgot to shift the gear box on the right position, the second is that it’s not connected to the transmission. Instead to trying to fix the engine or throwing it away, what needs a fix is the transmission.

Then let’s talk about ROA (return on assets). The number is well known but John Hagel recently reminded it to us : it has dropped to 25% of what it was in 1965 while people’s productivity has been skyrocketting in the meanwhile. Conclusion : that’s not employees that don’t pedal fast enough but the organization that struggles at turning their effort into value. So the solution is not to blame employees and put even more pressure on them but to rethink the way work is organized and people are managed.

Now, have a look at new ways of doing things and the tools that support them. Anyone with few objectivity understands that the easier it is for employees to access resources and expertises in a fluid way that helps to save time, the quicker problem solving and the better made decisions made will be. But since this system is hardly systematizable, organizations keep their old way of doying things. What means telling the cyclist to pedal harder and harder while the chain is broken.

So the true question about ROI is not to know if it exists but how to turn a potential into actual benefits. This is not about social media or behaviors (even if it will play a part) but about “plumbing”.

That’s exactly what I wrote a couple of years ago about strategy maps and intangible assets :

• Value creation is indirect : intangible assets don’t create value by themselves, but through their use in business process.

• Value is contextual : the value of intangible assets depends on their alignment with strategy

• Value is potential : if business process don’t use those assets, their value remain potential and can’t be fully realized.

• Assets are bundled : intangible assets have to be use in conjuction with tangible assets.

So it’s logacally difficult if not impossible to demonstrate any kind of benefit and, most all all, to measure them, if the question of alignment has not been tackled and if processes have not been designed or fixed to actually rely more on intangible assets.

Organizations have to forget the old principle according to which tools ahave an endogenous value : the value of social tools is exogenous and can’t be delivered if tools are not used in the context of adapted processes.

So there are chances we keep on discussing the ROI of Enterprise 2.0 again and again for years if the focus is kept on “whether” it exists instead of “how to deliver it”. Even people who are convinced and don’t care about the “if” shoud care of the ‘how” that ensures that processes will be able to turn the potential into tangible benefits.

As my good friend Luis Suarez rencently wrote, we should learn to work smarter, not harder. Lett me add : provided we avoid to pedal better but in emptiness.