I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Looking for disruption? Don't look to technology

The chattering classes would have us believe that technology disrupts. It does not. Socio-economic conditions change to create an incongruity that is ripe for exploitation. By way of example, the technology to enable the sharing economy existed for years, but monetizing everything from spare time to the spare bedroom only became appealing when mortgages went underwater, wages stagnated, and the labor participation rate dropped. That computer technology was at the center of this disruption should be no surprise given the rise of the Information Age several decades ago. It certainly wasn't going to be steam engines.

Rather than understanding the disruption phenomenon through the lens of change that has already happened, it is worth looking at the change that has not happened but should have given the availability of technology to bring it about.

For at least 40 years now, we‘ve been told that technology will revolutionize education. Kids can learn from home in immersive media-rich environments, receive continuous feedback on their work intertwined with their lessons, learn at their own pace with tutors and resources delivered to reinforce or accelerate their learning, and so forth. And it could: plenty of technologies exist that make it practical for students to learn advanced subjects in virtual environments, tapping into tutors for private study and multi-media libraries on-demand to experience subjects as never before.

But the revolution hasn’t happened. Kids today are still transported en masse to large brick buildings to get talked at for hours on end, just as they have for decades. If better ways of educating the masses are in their second, third, even fourth generation, why are we still closer to the one room schoolhouse than "I know kung-fu"?

We are because entrenched interests create stationary socio-economic inertia that is difficult to overcome. Consider:

  1. K-12 education is free daycare: with real wages stagnant, high levels of single-parent households, and record levels of household debt-to-income, most families do not have the luxury of having a stay-at-home parent.
  2. Education is publicly regulated, publicly provided, and publicly financed: power dynamics of education are political, not commercial, because politicians define education standards, schools are funded by tax revenues, union dues finance political action committees, and teachers (and bus drivers, and school administrators) vote.
  3. Education is big business. Tax reform that targets university endowments has elicited quite a cry from what are arguably hedge funds that happen to be associated with universities (the top 4 US universities have combined endowments over $103,000,000,000). There is also $1,200,000,000,000 in student loans, a debt market that, like all fixed income markets, has an insatiable appetite for growth.
  4. School sports is big business at the high school and collegiate levels. To wit: it is a little bit shocking that the highest paid public employee is a professional entertainer, rather than a professional administrator or legislator. Of course, sports is big money to the institutions with limited compensation - scholarships pale in comparison to the television revenues - to the athletes.

The status quo is not without its defenses. This is important to understand because these defenses are a bulwark against disruption. One defense is that community schooling develops social interaction skills. Another is that team activities like sports and music extend the educational experience beyond fact mastery. These justifications are increasingly without merit. There are no social benefits to bullying, peer pressure, and substance abuse among teenagers; clearly, we can create healthier environments for children to come to terms with diversity, open dialogue and complex social interactions than the toxic environment that is the modern education system. And with so many schools cutting back on arts programs and non-revenue sports (every sport but football and basketball), families increasingly have to go private (meaning, pay out of pocket) for their children to be able to participate in them.

The way the status quo in education has been defended is akin to how the status quo has been defended in wealth management. As passive investing emerged as a threat to active management, defenders of active management argued that passive investment can at best yield "average" returns (that is, returns that match the market) - and who wants to be "average?" That sentiment, twined with selective data flattering to returns on active investing (such as Peter Lynch's aggregate performance and selective years from selected funds), kept money in active for decades despite a preponderance of evidence showing superior performance of passive over time. Stationary inertia is not only quite powerful, it is vigorously defended.

It isn't difficult to imagine just about all primary, secondary, and 100 and 200 level university courses delivered digitally: there just isn't a lot of room for variation in teaching Principals of Financial Accounting I, and how many ways can we dissect James Joyce that machine learning can’t match? And, although there would still be a need need for physics, chemistry and medical labs, it would not be necessary at the basic levels: while there is quite nothing like playing with chemicals, a lot of STEM experiments can be modeled in virtual reality, allowing a student to live like Wile E. Coyote without having to depend on cartoon physics to survive the experience.

Technology may have influenced education, but it hasn’t transformed it. At best, technology has been co-opted to reinforce the classroom model. The technology exists today to make primary through associate degree education a utility. If unleashed, technology would allow for much more advanced and exploratory work at the boundaries of research. But something has to threaten the easy money in education before that happens. Technology cannot do that by itself.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Would-Be Innovator's Dilemma

It is appealing to think of your trading partners and competitors seeing your company as an industry leading innovator. More soberly, you know it's only a matter of time before the fundamental economics of your business shift not only out of your favor, but out of what you've always known them to be.

Unfortunately, as we saw last month, innovation is an increasingly expensive game. You aren't the pied piper who will lead industry change, nor can you afford an escalating arms race developing weaponized technology. How do you play the innovation game to win if you don't have infinitely deep pockets to finance voyages of discovery and if you don't have the clout or the charm to convince others to finance your vision?

Do You have the Financial Profile of an Innovator?

It is unrealistic to ask a debt-laden utility to suddenly find its creative mojo. Because it must extract maximum cash flows to service its capital structure, it is organized for maximum operating efficiency. Given that efficient utilities are intolerant to irregular operations, it goes without saying that they are similarly allergic to excessive bouts of creative thinking.

Companies that loaded up on debt in recent years have taken themselves out of the innovation game. Innovation is risk, and equity - not debt - is risk capital. A company that is serious about innovating cannot be beholden to investors demanding predictability. It must have sufficient high-risk capital to engage in high-risk investing.

Changing capital structure doesn't imply foregoing operational discipline. Ambitious innovation - that is, not the incremental kind - is expensive. The bigger your war chest, the longer you can stay in the game. Not to mention that having positive cash flows from operations means not having to beg investors for cash infusions just to keep the dream alive. Retained earnings are investment capital with the lowest cost of capital a firm can get. The operative word is "retained": operational efficiency doesn't fuel innovation if cash is pledged to investors. In exchange for foregoing distributions, you have to convince investors that they are wagering on value through innovation.

Before you go hunting for innovation, you must first thoroughly understand the financial incongruities in your business model that benefit you so that you can be prepared for them to disappear and, more importantly, set the terms for you and your industry peers for sacrificing them. Technology drives out inefficiency. For example, software firms have had to move away from a lucrative license revenue model (pay up front) to a metered cloud-based subscription service (pay as you go). When you go looking for innovation, expect that you will open Pandora’s box and unleash the commercial forces that conspire to contract those incongruities. More importantly, prepare your own company for the evaporation of easy money and prepare it to compete on different commercial terms - before someone else forces them on you.

Know Your Business, Know Your Commercial Ecosystems

It is alarming how much business knowledge erosion has already occurred. Some because of attrition, some because of acquisition, and some because expensive knowledge workers were swapped out for cheaper labor paid to simply turn the crank. Whatever the reason, you can't have much hope of ambitiously innovating if you don’t have people who know why your customers derive value from you for the things that you do.

That knowledge only covers the current lay of the landscape. You have to have people who understand customer and supplier needs as well as the needs of those who could be but are not doing business with you. You may have deep insights and lots of data about a universe of companies you work with today, but that does you no good if you’re not winning the business of people who will do business with you tomorrow. You can find that out through experimentation, but experimentation without context is just guessing. Context is tribal knowledge. It's hard to win the business of a new generation of buyer if none are members of your tribe (i.e., you don't employ anyone of that generation).

If the definition of value and the foundational economics are are being blurred in your industry, you probably can’t project your idea of the future all alone. That means selling your ideas on partners and convincing them to move in concert. That requires a thorough understanding of your trading partner’s businesses so you can explain why the innovation that is good for your business is also good for theirs.

Build Versus Buy Versus Co-Opt

We tend to think about innovation as something we have to go out and make. Big pharma showed that M&A can be an effective substitute for R&D. One is not a shortcut to the other as each is defined by a complex set of competencies and capabilities. Making requires competency in experience empathy, product management, design, analysis, engineering, analytics and many other skills. Acquiring requires competency in valuation, negotiation, financial engineering, integration (which itself extends to things like corporate culture) and rationalization. Do not go in pursuit of either making or buying in a big way until you build confidence that you have capability to execute competently in a small way.

Of course, the business landscape is littered with expensive technology boondoggles gone awry, and M&A is more likely to be value destructive than value generative. Sometimes the best use of capital is co-opting an emerging threat to the prevailing economics. Whether banks were ever quaking in their boots at unregulated peer-to-peer lenders stealing their most lucrative borrowers, the banks certainly did a good job fueling P2P lending growth to a point of dependency. The tightening of the credit cycle caused banks to pull back their buying, creating a crisis with peer-to-peer lenders that resulted in those would-be disruptors filing for banking licenses themselves - becoming the very thing they set out to disrupt in the first place. Instead of competing by creating a competitive marketplace or buying an emerging competitor, the established banks effectively greenmailed the threat.

Restructure to Innovate, then Innovate or Die

If the easy money of the idea economy has long past, and if “big ideas” are the only ones that will move the needle, then innovation is not incremental but wholesale in scope. This makes it a serious investing activity that encompasses the enterprise, not a lab in the business or a side R&D function. That requires the appropriate capital structure and investors (innovation is risk), the right knowledge (invest in what you know), and the acumen to choose when to act through making, acquiring or co-opting. Leading innovation doesn’t have to mean creating “the next big thing”, but it always means being prepared to exploit it.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Innovation Exhaustion

"We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas."

-- Ned Flanders' mom, "The Simpsons", season 8 episode 8: Hurricane Neddy

We're constantly being told by the popular business press that we live in an "ideas economy," where survival is a function of disruption because consumer behaviors and emerging technologies are conspiring to obsolete the economics of established businesses. There are plenty of examples - music publishing, mass-market retailing, local transportation - where new entrants have left a wake of creative destruction in their path.

Management consultants love to trot this stuff out, because fear of the unknown (who will destroy your company?) twined with tantalizing prospects of runaway riches (you could be the next air-b-n-amazon-uber-twit-book!) make for eager and pliable clients.

What those management consultants don't tell you is, it's expensive being in the ideas business. R&D isn't cheap: there is far more demand for engineering labor than there are engineers to be hired. And, a lot of R&D is terminal: you have to try a lot of things before you find something that pays for itself. Costly research that tells you only what not to do is cold comfort when you're trying to figure out what it is you should be doing.

It also appears that the economics of the "ideas economy" have been slowly eroding for a very long time. According to this paper, the number of people working in research has grown at a much faster rate than economic growth. Consider semiconductors: "The number of researchers required to double chip density today is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the 1970s." Inflation has risen only 6.5 times since 1970. Yowza.

Of course, that could mean there are too many slackers in research jobs, or that we have more eggheads than our economies can afford. But the real culprit seems to be a scarcity of ideas: they're just getting harder to find. As Izabella Kaminska wrote in the FT, "if research productivity is declining it stands to reason it is being offset by increased research effort. This essentially implies that it is getting harder to find new ideas as research progresses."

A big reason for this is economic maturation. There were far more impressive productivity gains in the early stages of the industrial revolution and microcomputer revolution than there were later in their respective lifecycles: the once factories were mechanized and all the back-office accounting computerized, the big and easy gains were made.

But even Amazon is showing signs of innovation fatigue. In the last 6 years, sales are up 5x, but employee headcount is up 10x. Liabilities are growing as fast as cash, suggesting free cash flow isn't improving with time. And, Amazon's growth rate is far lower than what Wal-Mart's was at a similar point in its history. If growth has slowed, capital intensity is up, and total labor spend is up, either platform monopoly economics aren't what we think they're supposed to be or they will take a very, very long time to materialize. This isn't to say Amazon isn't going to grow, or be a threat to traditional retailers and other industries, but it is to say that even Amazon is showing evidence of idea exhaustion.

What about the major disruption that appears to be on the horizon, like distributed ledger technology?

Blockchain could eliminate redundancies across companies, reduce fees for simple transfers, and usher in all kinds of innovation. It can, but the economics won't materialize as rapidly as ideas of yore. As long as the network is stubbornly difficult to secure and access, trust will remain with the institutions using the network, not the network itself. As long as trust remains with institutions and not the network, the institutions will have no choice but to maintain their own ledgers for a long time. That means that companies in ecosystems that adopt distributed ledger technology will find opportunities for innovation and gain some efficiencies, but will not be able to exploit its full potential for quite some time. Innovation and productivity from disruptive ideas, while still present, will fall short of potential.

This is the storyline with all emerging disruptive technologies. We may get autonomous long-haul trucks but we will still require drivers in the cab, we have shared ledgers but a lot of that data will remain duplicated throughout consuming organizations, we allow initial coin offerings but we regulate them as securities. There are economic benefits, sure, but the economic windfall they promise is just out of reach. That revolutionary new economy is delayed at the airport.

The chattering classes are telling us that we live in an "ideas economy" a full half-century after it was ripe to traffic in ideas. A more appropriate term might be the "ambition economy", because to reap the benefits of the possible requires a significant break away from the known and familiar. That's more than innovation driven by a single firm; it requires moving ecosystems of consumers, suppliers and regulators.

For those caught in the crossfire - firms that don't much like the prospect of winning a participant trophy in a costly innovation arms race, and don't have the gravitas to lead ecosystem change - what alternative do you have? We'll look at the options next month.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Partners

"Greed and patience don't live together very well."

-- Keith Jackson, ESPN 30 for 30, Who Killed the USFL?

Businesses rely on a network of suppliers to operate and grow, including providers of components, back-office operations, distribution, marketing, retail, information technology and even office supplies. They do this for a variety of reasons, ranging from areas of specialty (assembling large finished goods is different from manufacturing small, precision components), depth of expertise (some companies are better at selling things than making things), accessibility of labor (difficult to hire in a location where there are too many jobs chasing too few employees), and appeal to the people with the skill set (a wholesaler doesn't offer that much career growth for an attorney).

All relationships, whether personal or commercial, are based on need. A buyer looking for widgets will go to another supplier if they can't get the widgets they're looking for. Similarly, a seller may choose not to sell widgets to a cheapskate buyer, and will find other customers instead.

Although rationally the statement of cash flows should triumph in commercial relationships, we're very often asked to extend our balance sheets to help someone else. In a commercial context, this is the point at which terms like "supplier" and "vendor", "client" and "customer" are ditched in favor of the aspirationally higher ground implied by the word "partner". Rather than evaluating transactionally (this relationship comes at a high cost to me), we evaluate strategically (this relationship is important to me).

Choosing to underwrite a shortcoming in a relationship is to make a leap of faith that there will be tangible or intangible rewards for doing so. The executive who keeps changing the specifications but always gives a glowing recommendation, the company that provides your firm with the annual revenue if not the timely cash flows. A partner puts up with deficiencies because they get much more out of the relationship.

Partnership, then, encompasses more than just a relationship of need, but a relationship worth it to both parties to make sacrifices to sustain. When we partner, we each agree to ebbs and flows in the relationship - "in sickness and in health" - and that we will not merely tolerate, but accommodate. A seller that has to roll somebody off a team because they can't travel; a buyer that has to reduce the amount they spend. In these situations, a partner sets aside the short-term impairment for the long-term benefits of continuity and consistency.

Of course, there are more benefits than merely convenience. Each partner changes independently, and those changes keep the partnership relevant and fresh. In the process, each learns continuously from the other, evolves what they do and matures how they do it. Strong partnerships make stronger individuals.

Partnership implies equivalency. Yet the commercial world is full of alleged "partnerships" that are superior-subordinate, making them inherently unbalanced. Companies stay in condescending or even abusive relationships because they're afraid of the uncertainty of the alternative. Sellers do this because suckling at the teat of easy revenue is far easier than hustling new business. Buyers do this because they feel held hostage by a supplier. Even though it comes at a high commercial cost (squeezed margins) and high human cost (second class status and compromised careers for those involved), such business "partnerships" can last for a long time.

Egalitarian partnership, then, is more often wishful thinking than willful practice.

Whatever else they may do, partners do not try to get the better of one another. If one party feels it has to out-maneuver the other in every contract negotiation, pad or dispute every invoice, cast doubt on quality or contribution well after delivery as a means of finagling a discount, or flaunt payment terms, it isn't a partnership. This isn't competition that makes for stronger individuals and better outcomes, it's subversion that prioritizes individual gain over mutual outcome.

There's nothing wrong with transactional relationships, and if we're honest, most commercial engagements don't have the potential to become genuine partnerships. Partnership is investment, and like all investments, there's only so many you can make and maintain. Over-using the term and confusing one type of relationship for another does the people and companies you do business with a disservice because it implies a commitment to them that you're not making. Transact faithfully with all (the world is a better place when it gets by on trust), and partner intensely with those who equally benefit from your association.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Invest in What You Know

Every day, millions of people buy expensive things they don't know much about: cars and residential homes, enterprise software and entire enterprises. Having a deep pocket - or investiture by people with deep pockets - is the only qualification required for an individual to have buying authority. As we saw previously, emotions have a share - often a disproportionate one at that - in buying decisions. This makes value a relative rather than an absolute concept, and absurd as a summable metric.

When purchases get large, we re-cast them as investments. As assets, acquisitions appreciate in value on their own (e.g., real estate) or they enable us to derive greater economic value than we otherwise would without them: a truck depreciates in value, but it is inefficient to run a flower delivery business without a truck, so having a truck on the asset line of the balance sheet boosts revenue on the income statement. Unfortunately, a lack of expertise in the things that we buy tends to give non-economic factors an important role in the decision. We may know horticulture and the asthetics of flower arrangement but not know much about forecasting operating costs and reliability in city driving, so our business investment comes down to factors like style, comfort, or just liking one salesperson over another.

Purely financial investments aren't immune to this, either. We're not experts in industrials or tech firms or utilities or the ETFs that collect them, so we develop criteria (consistent dividends, revenue growth), create justification frameworks (safety, income), and consult experts (research firms), but in the end we follow our emotions (I soooooooo love their products I'll park my IRA in their stock). We want to equate investing with rationality, but a lack of expertise - and the pressure to make investments - make it anything but rational.

Many people in the tech industry - myself included - have advocated recasting technology as a financial phenomenon that yields returns rather than an operating cost to be minimized. Well, more accurately, recasting some portion of technology this way. We don't need to measure return-on-the-time-and-expense-system: it's a tax on our business and all we want to do is pay as little per staff member as we possibly can. But we can't expect to create high-risk call options (R&D) or make strategic capital allocations (platforms) with stay-in-your-swim-lane staffing and structure. Form follows finance: because of the outsized effect that finance has on operations, we start by changing the funding model, which clears the path for new structure and process. Follow the money.

If tech is going to function as a financial rather than an operating phenomenon, it must take its guiding principles from financial investing. Benjamin Graham implied and Peter Lynch practiced the idea that you should only invest in what you know. Get to know the industry dynamics, the company in particular, and the people operating it before pledging any capital. You'll still have disappointments, but far fewer surprises. This separates thoughtful investing from reckless gambling.

In technology, "investing in what you know" requires substantial business domain knowledge and tech fluency with generous helpings of behavioral science and economics. Successive waves of efficiency gains mean we can't take intimate business knowledge for granted any more. All the organization, process, and ceremonies won't compensate for a lack of these things, the evidence of which is seen in the reference cases of Product organizations that create confusion rather than cohesion, and the large replatforming initiatives that require additional cash calls and goal reduction to be deemed successes. If we're going to "invest in what we know", the leadership imperative is in securing the fundamentals so that we have the basic competencies in place.

But that presents us with a recursive investing challenge. Developing the capability to competently invest in technology is an investment itself, and must be held to the same standard: are we investing in something we know? Do we know what we're looking for in that investment into capability? Or will investments in our future leaders be more emotional than rational?

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Value Myth

When we think about value, we think in terms of hard measures like increasing revenue or decreasing cost, or soft measures like increasing customer satisfaction or reducing customer friction. This all sounds great, but we know in practice that value is not as concrete as we would like to believe: projections are conjecture, there are multiple forces at work that determine the result we get, and counterfactuals can't be proven to know for fact whether we'd have been better off doing something different or nothing at all given how circumstances played out. Good as it might be that value allows people to relate their actions to hoped-for outcomes, it is naive to think that the outcomes will result from the sum of the actions that we take. Business is far more complex and far more messy.

Saying otherwise is disingenuous, because it gives business a theoretical tidiness that it simply does not possess. Perhaps this is inevitable when non-business people like program managers (coordinator-administrators) and developers (engineer-nerds) traffic in business concepts (finance). Whatever the reason, it isn't helpful if tech wants to be taken seriously by the professionals - particularly the finance professionals - who run the business. Showing a direct line-of-sight from tech or process to business outcome sets up tech to get played and manipulated. Going from tech to business value in one step is a short-cut to being relegated by the board; it is not a path to business relevancy.

In this series of posts, I've taken a different tack, focusing on value and worth as behavioral rather than economic concepts. It stands to reason that if value and worth are in the eye of the beholder, their definitions will be heavily influenced by individual biases. Success of any business initiative comes down to behaviors, so the better we understand those the better we understand the complexity of what value really is in a complex business context.

Value is different things to different people for vastly different reasons. Consider insurance claims. During a storm, high winds blow a tree down and onto a house, collapsing a section of the roof. Insurance adjusters don't care about the aesthetics of different colored roof shingles used in the repair. The adjuster only cares that the roof is repaired and the house won't be taking on ballast the next time it rains. The insurance adjuster is under orders to repair the house with minimum impact to the insurance company's cash flow, and is therefore focused on the utility (which is easy to quantify), not the aesthetics (which are not). That the first thing any prospective buyer will point out is that those green roof shingles clash with the existing gray roof shingles appears nowhere in the adjusters "cost of repair" spreadsheet: whether green or gray or fluorescent pink, those shingles will keep out the rain and the snow and the critters. For the insurance company, the asset they insure was repaired with minimum impact on their cash flow.

The same applies to tech. An engineer infatuated with the tech stack supporting a hopelessly implemented feature set. A user clinging to an interface backed by an impenetrable monolith of code. The CFO who is tone deaf to responsiveness and excessive defects, solely because of the price. Try as we like to frame "business value" as an absolute, in practice it is a relative concept, interpreted and reconciled to the motivations and desires of each individual in the value chain. What gets measured is what gets managed, so "business value" becomes the means through which individual value is realized: we need this over-hyped cutting-edge tech stack because it will help us deliver it faster; how conveniently coincident that experience with that over-hyped cutting-edge technology flatters the resumes of the people working on it.

This creates cascading re-interpretations and re-assertions that smother value, ironically justified by the pursuit of value. A firm I audited years ago had, some months prior, formed a cross-functional committee of tech, business and finance to choose a mobile development toolkit. Business believed it needed a mobile solution, tech aspired to create one, but the board didn't share in the enthusiasm. In the end, finance won out, choosing the tool that cost the least but that tech found unstable and yielded software solutions the business didn't much care for. The tool was never used. Instead, developers rolled their own frameworks and infrastructure, below the radar of the CFO and with a wink-and-a-nod agreement with their business partner that they would do so. The purchased framework had negative value to its intended constituents, to a point that tech believed there was more value (and with the complicity of business in the decision, to the business as well) in creating proprietary development infrastructure. Whether spending twice for infrastructure was tech rescuing the "value" jeopardized by a crap product, or tech being intransigent and subversive to the board's agenda, all depends on your definition of value under the circumstances.

We don't win the triple crown of value all that often. Marketing doesn't appreciate losing the pricey boutique firm they could talk to each and every day, but tech looks like stars to the CFO for sending the work to a cheap offshore supplier. The CIO doesn't like being held hostage by employees who used an obscure tech stack in the name of getting something done "faster", only to be making it debilitatingly expensive as they exit the firm and go into private practice. Eliyahu Goldratt pointed out the tradeoff of local optimization for systemic optimization a long, long time ago. Local optimization infiltrates every value calculation, in temporal ways that defy models of value.

We want to believe that "value" is an absolute measure of something that improves the condition of the enterprise: In unitate es virtus. But we know that people have different interpretations and goals that materially impact the business outcome, so value is a weighted sum of disparate, unexposed agendas. The larger the enterprise, the more complex the calculus.

Value is money, and where there is money, there is politics. With that in mind, value is perhaps best understood as something Mike Royko taught us about the fundamentals of politics many years ago: Ubi est mea?

"Where's mine?"

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Questions of Value

In March, we looked at questions of worth. This month, we look at "questions of value".

In the dictionary, value is defined by worth, and worth is defined by value. Why ask the question twice? Because even if they refer to the same thing, the words mean different things in different circumstances. In economic terms, "worth" refers to stored value, such as accumulated financial reserves (one's "net worth") or the price we're willing to pay to replace something we already own. We use the word "value" in reference to economic (or other) power unleashed by something that we have or do. An object has sentimental "value" to which we ascribe an inexplicably high economic "worth". An investment in a truck yields economic "value" on the income statement well above the worth we ascribe to it on the balance sheet, because without it we couldn't achieve delivery efficiencies.

Value traffics in moving, worth in storage.

Value is what we're willing to pay for something in exchange for the returns that it provides. We value cars for reasons ranging from their resale value to the status we think they project to the friends and strangers who see us driving it. We value houses for the school districts we can put our kids in, the relative price of houses nearby, their convenience to how we live and make our living, and the status that living in that post code conveys.

In software, we want to make decisions about where we invest based on value. But because we can't predict the future, value is conjecture. This forces us to ask: what defines value? And who defines value?

Value, like love, is a many splendored thing. There is value derived from features, there is value derived from construction, and there is value amplified from not spending too much. An asset that does many things, is low maintenance, and costs little will be higher yield than one that does few things, is high maintenance, and costs dearly. The problem of defining value is the problem of projection because there are no absolutes in those projections.

This creates a bit of a problem, because value is a future-tense term, and we can't know with much certainty what the most important characteristics are to realizing that value. This becomes a big problem when we want to "buy for value". Worth is bankable, if vulnerable to erosion; value is in the eye of the beholder and may never materialize.

Consider a house. Buyers define all kinds of evaluation criteria, things like proximity to public transportation, newer appliances, and rooms and layout that accommodates their possession and lifestyle. But a house is a building and its utility is a function of its construction as much as its design. Since most home buyers aren't carpenters or plumbers or electricians, they're not able to judge quality of the build. They rely on the opinions of experts. Hence we have inspectors, who are licensed in most states and built into residential contract law to provide their expert opinion on the house.

Selection criteria and expert opinions only go so far, though. A homeowner doesn't really know if a house is what they want until they've lived in it for a while, and besides, some of their criteria will be contradictory and some of their priorities will be out of order. Inspectors have limited expertise with building codes, practices and materials, and they're only spending a couple of hours looking over the carpentry, masonry, electrical, plumbing and mechanical of an entire building that took hundreds of person days to build. For all the sweating and scrutiny, at best our opinions tell us that we shouldn't buy something; they don't necessarily tell us specifically why we should. All house purchases are compromises, and in the end, the purchase is made for substantially - perhaps even largely - emotional reasons, and complex ones at that.

This applies to all kinds of purchases where "value" is a factor. Like cars: we develop criteria (seats, storage, zero-to-sixty speed), poll experts (trade press like Consumer Reports and Car & Driver), but still make a decision that is partially - even largely - informed by emotions. Look, it's got four doors, space for the kids & clubs, it's fuel efficient, and will you just look at those shouty rims?

Questions of value become even more conflicted when multiple stakeholders have different ways in calculating value, and ambiguous authority in setting it. We'll take a closer look at that next month.