As the pace of business continues to accelerate, there seems to be one aspect of the business process model that is struggling to keep up: The Business Case. There was a time where capital expenditures were looked upon as long term investments by the business. The life-cycle and pay-back processes, as well as the accounting amortization of these investments, were expected to last years, and in some instances, even decades. The average business case became attuned to these norms.
But those days are long gone. As the speed with which technology has changed has continued, by necessity the business case used to justify the new or incremental investment has needed to become shorter. If Moore’s law of eighteen-month capability doubling (it was actually Intel executive David House, who predicted that chip performance would double every 18 months. Gordon Moore, for whom the law is named, was the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, and whose 1965 paper described a doubling every two years in the number of transistors per integrated circuit was the basis for the coining of the “law”) is to be believed, then the asymptote for the length of an acceptable business case should approach that eighteen month to two year limit as well.
That doesn’t mean that a product’s useful life is only limited to eighteen months. I think quite the contrary. There are aspects of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that have been in place for more than fifty years, and are still providing beneficial service to the communications carriers and their subscribers alike.
On the other hand, people are known to line up and over-night camp out every eighteen to twenty-four months in order to be the first to get the next generation of the Apple iPhone.
It appears that customers who are being asked for either capital or operational expenditures associated with technology oriented products, are driving their partners and their vendors to ever more rigorous and aggressive value propositions and rates of return. This is the genesis of the short horizon business case.
The simplest definition of value is how much money is made or saved over what period of time. The more you make, or the more you save over a given period, the better the value. In the past it was acceptable for a business case to extend out over a long enough time period as to show an acceptable return. If the initial business case for the sale didn’t make sense for one period of time, it was easy just to lengthen out the time frame until it did.
What appears to be happening is that as the rate of technological based product change has continued at the speed of Moore’s Law, the period that a customer is willing to measure value has shrunk. Business cases still need to show the customer value, they now must do it in far less time. The tried and true form of extending the business case period to make the value and pay back equations work is now gone. Customers will no longer accept it, and are driving for shorter and shorter review periods.
I think there are several factors in addition to technical obsolescence that are helping to drive a short horizon on the business case:
As each new generation of technology arrives it almost exponentially drives down the (residual) value of previous generations. I think it is no secret that one generation old technology is viewed as old and disadvantaged, and that two-generation old technology is probably approaching the zero value state. We have all seen this in our consumer based technology purchases as well. Products get old so quickly that we have developed a disposable attitude toward them. With Personal computers now going for a few hundred dollars, what is the value of a two-generation old computer? What was once repaired and retained is now simply expected to be replaced.
How would consumers (and manufacturers) react if the same logic was applied to say, automobiles and two to three model year old car was considered almost valueless?
We also see (comparatively) decreasing operational returns as each new technology generation is introduced. This means that as each new product gets smaller and more efficient the value of generating operational savings associated with the previous generation of product also tends to get devalued.
The idea of saving something with what you have is not as attractive as the possibility of saving more with something new. I guess this is what they call “Marketing”.
I think one of the final evolution’s of the short horizon business case is the “Cloud”. I am sure everyone has heard of this thing. It’s in all the magazines.
One of the many ways that manufacturers and vendors have adapted to the evolving business case rules is to try and remove both the obsolescence associated with technology and to more closely align the delivered solution with the customer’s need. The idea being that if a customer only needs a four-unit solution but the technology only comes in six or eight unit increments, there is a delivered solution miss-match.
By delivering a function from the cloud as opposed to a product based solution, the vendor has effectively removed technology obsolescence from the customer’s decision process, as well as matched the required amount of solution with the required amount of need.
The net result is a much shorter period needed to achieve the required business case. Customer purchases can be made in smaller increments, which in turn only require smaller pay-backs. Future product purchases and existing product obsolescence are removed from the customer’s decision criteria as the customer is now only purchasing the product’s function, not the product itself. The obsolescence issue, and all the other costs associated with operation of the product are now retained by the vendor (and should be built into their business case).
The continued drive for more value has driven customers and business cases to the short horizon. Capital for technology can no longer be viewed as a long-term investment. It must be judged and justified by how quickly it can pay back on its cost and the relative business value it generates. It is this drive for better business returns that continues to reduce the time scale associated with the business case.
This trend would appear to potentially be a seed cause for future changes to the way business is conducted. On one hand it will continue to make the sale of capital based technology products more difficult. By demanding shorter pay-back and business case periods, customers are in essence expecting lower prices for products, and higher value delivered. That is a demanding and difficult environment for any supplier.
It should also continue to drive product virtualization and the Cloud as ways for suppliers to retain costs and risks, and hence remove them from the customer’s business case. This will continue to be an interesting market, but not all technologies and products may be potential candidates for the cloud.
It could also be argued that a potentially unexpected result of the drive to align business cases with product life cycles could be the reversal of Moore’s Law. It has long been expected that there is some sort of limit to the capacity doubling process. It has been going on for over fifty years. There are recent articles in no less than the MIT Technology Review, Ars Technica, and The Economist (to name just a few) that are now stating that Moore’s Law have in fact run its course.
And this may also be of benefit to business. If customers want to align their capital business case length with the product’s life cycle, and the current eighteen to twenty-four month life cycle of the product makes this increasingly difficult, then one of the solutions may be to lengthen the product life cycle to more than twenty-four months. If there truly is a link between business case length and product life cycle, then this could be a possible solution.
This will be an interesting cause and effect discussion. Is the potential slowing of Moore’s Law going to cause the reversing of the short horizon trend associated with customer’s business cases, or is the demand for short horizon business cases going to accelerate the slowing of Moore’s Law due to business necessities? Either way, customers are requiring businesses to change the way they put together the business case for capital technology sales, and that is having a significant effect on how business can successfully get done.