ROI success begins and ends with accountability

Assigning accountability for ROI results can sometimes mean the difference between a successful project and a failed one. In this tip, learn why accountability is so important to ROI and how to use it your benefit.

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A lack of clear accountability for expected business benefits is the most significant shortcoming of most ROI efforts. Accountability creates the incentive and authority necessary to address the inevitable problems that arise with complex IT projects.

Involving the people who will be accountable for a project's ROI up front in the development of its business case results in much more accurate, complete and credible estimates of benefits and costs. Nothing is more effective at forcing the "fluff" out of the business case for an investment than tying the accountable people's performance appraisals and/or compensation (to the degree appropriate) to the quantifiable success of the project.

If no one is willing to take accountability for the expected benefits, companies should seriously question whether the project should be undertaken in the first place.
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Without accountability, the project threatens to become a baseless "wish" that business value will materialize.

To properly establish ROI accountability, first you need to define the value metrics that will be used to measure and continually improve the benefits actually gained from the project (for example, cost per order, revenue per sales rep or retention of customers). The expected improvements in the business metrics are used to calculate the benefits for the business justification. Using the same metrics as the basis for the justification and measurement/improvement of actual results is one of the main advantages of this approach, adding greater credibility to the request for funding.

Accountability for business metrics should lie with the senior manager who owns the business area in which the value is expected to be gained. Therefore, responsibility for increases in revenue and reductions in business costs reside within the business organizations. The CIO or senior IT manager should be accountable for improvements in the cost-effectiveness of delivering an IT service or capability. These IT improvements should be transparent to the business, beyond the reduced bills they receive for the service or capability.

For example, in the case of an enterprise application implementation such as customer relationship management, ERP or business intelligence, a senior business person should be responsible for the expected improvements in revenue and business costs related to areas such as marketing, sales, service and manufacturing. A senior IT manager should be accountable for reducing the cost of delivering the capability by improving the cost-effectiveness of application planning, design, development, operations and support.

There will be multiple value metrics for any given project (however, it's best to limit them to between two and five to maintain focus), with different people potentially being accountable for each one. However, only one person should be accountable for a given metric and its related value targets. If more than one person appears to be accountable, the metric should either be segmented or the roles and responsibilities should be clarified. There may be multiple enablers responsible for implementing individual changes, but only one person should be accountable for the business results represented by each metric.

The IT enabler

It is important to note that IT still plays a key enabling role, even in cases in which a business person is formally accountable for the expected results. In these cases, IT should support the accountable business person during the justification process. IT must also serve as an active part of the team that reviews the results of the business metrics, and develops and implements the action plan to improve them. IT should then be identified as a critical element of the solution when the results are touted.

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If no one is willing to take accountability for the expected benefits, companies should seriously question whether the project should be undertaken in the first place. From a practical perspective, establishing accountability for business-oriented IT projects can be challenging for many companies as it requires the business to take on a new type of responsibility. This can be phased in over time by establishing accountability on a few projects and limiting the direct impact on compensation. The experience and credibility developed during these initial projects can be used to expand the capability throughout the organization.

In all cases, executive-level support is a key requirement. However, gaining this support should not be difficult. Sales, service and manufacturing managers are regularly held accountable for revenue, retention and production levels. IT is now one of the largest capital expenses within corporations, and has reached the level of maturity in which it should be held to the same standards.

Dan Merriman is president of Chapin Consulting Group Inc. He helps corporate users and vendors of technology use business metrics to define, measure and continually improve the business value of their major initiatives. He can be reached at dmerriman@chapinconsulting.com or via the company Web site at www.chapinconsulting.com.

This was first published in December 2006

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