The IT performance metrics that don’t exist (yet)

Of all the ways we try to measure IT’s return on investment, “progress” seems a little too broad. And yet most of the other measures we use – improved productivity, operational efficiency, cost-effectiveness – are all signs of a company’s progress, if not progress on a world level. Everyone always assumes that such progress is a good thing, and often hope that countries can collectively progress on a global scale. Everyone, that is, except Edgar Morin.

A French philosopher whose work touches on both politics and economics, Morin has become known in his home country for highly controversial views on capitalism and consumption, which have nonetheless attracted the attention of president Nicholas Sarkozy. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Morin put things very succinctly:

“We are hypnotised by economic growth. But we should consider both economic growth and contraction together: what must grow, what must contract and what must remain stationary,” Morin said, citing technology as one of the forces that demand greater analysis. “Technological and economic development has brought capitalism and individualism. But if you take the effects of individualism, for example, it gives a lot of autonomy and responsibility to a person, but is also accompanied by a degradation of an essential social solidarity, of the family, the village, the district, or the workplace.”

Even philosophers, therefore, are starting to recognize that if you use your BlackBerry too much, you may end up ignoring your kids. But I was more interested in his first statement. If you take what Morin is saying about national or international economic growth, the engine of that growth is in part made up of IT. But probably the biggest quandries facing IT managers is not only how they will build up their infrastructure but precisely “what must contract and what must remain stationary.”

In some cases, what must contract is determined by the budget an IT manager has to work with, as does that which remains stationary. In the grand scheme of things, however, senior management typically charges the IT department to empower users with more data, more access to compute resources, additional tools for collaboration and communication. Only in the interests of security or the bottom line do those things contract or remain stationary.

Growth requires investment – not only of money but time and talent. And you don’t get the investment unless you can measure the results. But Morin is suspicious of efforts to explain everything away by numbers alone.

“Even if you have better measurements you will still not be able to quantify happiness,” he told FT. “All efforts to quantify love, for example, by creating a new measure – called the Cupidon, say – will never work. How can a young man in love with a woman say I feel a thousand Cupidon? It’s not possible.”

It’s easy for business, you might argue. You can use sales, or expenses, or customer churn. Not always, though. If customer (or employee) satisfaction wasn’t so hard to measure, we wouldn’t still be using survey tools. Emerging areas of interest, such as corporate social responsibility and business reputation, may be even harder to evaluate.

Morin offers no easy answers, but thinks it’s up to the public intellectuals to come up with them. “We live in a world of specialists, who have precise knowledge in distinct fields. But because of their limited knowledge they can never confront the fundamental and global problems that are really shaking society.” Can’t they? Specialized knowledge shouldn’t mean you operate with blinders on. Even if IT managers can’t come up with all the solutions, surely they can offer some of the components.

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