In yesterday’s post, I argued that ROI would not be an adequate measure of the benefits conferred by new-gen (or pseudo-new-gen) applications like Workday, Business By Design, or Fusion Application Suite. The previous-gen applications were all about automation. The new-gen suites confer real benefits (I think), but not necessarily benefits that fall through to the bottom line.

What benefits are they? Well, they have to do with working more effectively: making fewer errors, putting more time into work and less into busy work, making more accurate decisions, faster. Is there benefit from this kind of thing? Sure. But how do you measure it.

In the post, I suggested a hazy term, “operational effectiveness,” for the benefits one should expect. What is “operational effectiveness?” Let me admit freely that I don’t know for sure. In this post, let me propose an analogy, which should help you to understand what I’m getting at.

The analogy comes out of a historical situation that always posed a problem for ROI analysis, the transition in business from the typewriters that sat on secretary’s desks to the PC that sat on executive’s desks. This transition occurred in two different phases. First, the typewriters on the secretary’s desk were replaced with big, clunky word-processors that sat next to the desk. These word-processors automated the secretary’s document production work. Then, the secretarial position itself was eliminated, and the typing function became something that executives did themselves on that PC.

The transition to word processors could easily be justified in ROI terms. We could get more work out of the secretary or else hire fewer secretaries. Whether the justification was real is an open question. But it’s certain that that’s how people thought of it.

The next transition was much more problematic for ROI analysis. Expensive executive time was now being put into jobs that had been performed more efficiently by much cheaper labor.

At the time, people didn’t put a lot of thought into figuring out why they were funding this transition. Executives saw the PCs, knew that everyone else was using them, needed them for some functions (e-mail, spreadsheets), and just decided. “We’re doing it this way.” At least in my recollection, that’s what happened.

So were they just loony or lazy or wasting shareholder money on executive perks? I don’t think so. I think what they were plumping for was the same “operational efficiency” that I’m talking about 25 years later.

True, they spent more time typing. But they also had more control over the final product; they could change the product more easily; and they could distribute it without much overhead. And, at the same time, they were changing the form of what they were doing. They weren’t just producing typed memos; they were documents with fancy fonts and illustrations; and they were creating Power Points. True, many an executive was spending ridiculous amounts of time fiddling with type sizes so that they could get things on one page, but even acknowledging that, they thought the new way was better.

Indeed, by the time the transition was finished, justification wasn’t even a question, because the new tools changed the nature of work, and now you couldn’t get along without the tools. When executives were doing the typing, they stopped creating long reports. More and more of the time, a corporation’s decision-making was even wrapped around a full document (minutes, memos, or formal reports), it was wrapped around Power Point decks.

So by the end of the transition, ROI analysis had become entirely moot. How could you get a tangible measure of benefits when you were comparing apples and oranges?

Could we be seeing a similar transition now? It’s certainly possible. The analog to the word processors is that first generation of enterprise applications, which were funded by the automation benefits they confer and by ROI analysis. The analog to the PC is the second generation of enterprise applications.

(One caveat. As I’ve said before, I don’t think that Fusion Applications or the versions of Business by Design that I’ve seen are in fact second-generation applications. They’re more like Version 1.3. But they’re close enough to next-gen to raise the problem I’m talking about.)

If the analogy holds and if second-gen apps work as the developers hope, the benefits that businesses are going to experience will be equally hard to get your arms around, partly because the benefits are so subtle and disparate and partly because you’ll see a shift in the way work is done.

Does that mean that we won’t be able to talk about the benefits and we’ll just bull ahead with them? Well, that’s why I’m introducing the notion of operational effectiveness. It does seem to me that we can get clearer about what the benefits are.

So come on guys. Make comments. What is operational effectiveness? And how can we tell whether we are getting it?