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.

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.