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by Paul Strassmann
Bending the Numbers
Take a closer look at numbers touting the value of the IT industry, especially if they come from the federal government.By Paul A. Strassmann
Because it isn't easy to quantify, knowledge management is vulnerable to a high level of uncertainty among executives as to its impacts. Therefore, distortions in the metrics we apply to KM could significantly influence its acceptance. That's part of why KM metrics are a continuing focus of this magazine.
One danger we must keep in mind is the tendency to equate KM with information technology. Reducing the complex, ongoing process of knowledge management to simply buying computers risks alienating business leaders when they don't get the benefits of KM from plugging in their new purchases.
Perhaps the most often mentioned example of this disparity is the so-called "productivity paradox," which wryly states that computers can be seen everywhere except in the productivity statistics. Hundreds of articles and several books have been written about this conundrum, yet most academics have concluded that the paradox is an illusion because we cannot measure the benefits that computerization actually delivers.
To get around this barrier, consultants and IT managers who seek bigger budgets for computerization often resort to what I call bending the numbers. Numbers are "bent" when one mixes real numbers with measures that either are not verifiable (see my column "Intelligence in Question," October 2000 KMM) or are numerically precise but irrelevant.
It is difficult to expose the practice of number bending because the principal culprits--such as prognosticators cited by journalists as authoritative sources--don't reveal the details of how they arrive at their projections. For instance, the pundits never backed up their widely quoted forecasts that the Y2K disaster would cost organizations anywhere from $600 billion to $1.5 trillion. The actual cost ended up being about $150 billion.
As another egregious example, five of the most prominent market forecasters have predicted prospects for electronic commerce. Their estimates for e-commerce spending in 2000 ranged from $185 billion to $3.1 trillion; their projections for 2003 range from $1.26 trillion to $9.9 trillion. The differences are so great because these well-paid gurus have bent the numbers while interpreting inaccurate statistics about e-commerce.
Perhaps you're not surprised to hear that market analysts fudge numbers to inflate their own reputations. It's not so easy for government agencies to do that, as they are required to disclose the rationales for their analyses and the sources of their data. Number bending still occurs, but in most cases it can be quickly discovered. For example, the most recent statistics published by the U.S. Department of Commerce about the contributions of information to growth in the U.S. economy offer an excellent opportunity to study how to examine published metrics critically. I picked this case because it is widely used to support claims that we have entered the era of a knowledge-based economy.
In 1998 the Department of Commerce reported that computer-based information industries had driven more than one-fourth of America's total real economic growth. A follow-up report in 1999 stated that the IT sector had fueled 35 percent of the nation's real economic growth. Timed to coincide with an electoral campaign that presented the Clinton-Gore administration as a promoter of high technology, a revised report last year stated that information industries contributed nearly a third of the real growth of the U.S. economy.
Looking into these numbers, we find that the claim that information accounts for such an enormous contribution is supported by bending the relevant numbers in a couple of ways. First, the government broadens the definition of the "information revolution" as far as possible, including in it radio and television broadcasting, office machines such as photocopiers and faxes, laboratory analysis equipment, manufacturing testing instruments, household audio and video equipment, wired telecommunications carriers, paging equipment, cellular communications and just about everything else that is electronic. Second, the government places information technology in the most favorable perspective by applying inflationary or deflationary "adjustments" to the actual numbers involved. The output of all other sectors of the economy is reduced, while the contribution of information-based industries is heightened. Much of such boosting is based on the presumption that lower prices of personal computers and increased densities of magnetic storage media somehow translate into economic effectiveness. This manipulation is shown in the figure "Inflation Adjustments."
In the graph, $1.15 worth of gross domestic income (GDI) in 1990 was worth only 98 cents in 1998. In contrast, 81 cents worth of information technology in 1990 was worth $1.18 by 1998. By depressing the contributions of the rest of the economy and jacking up those of information products, it is possible to magnify the contributions of IT-producing industries to economic growth to yield a numerically precise 31.9 percent increase.
No one would dispute that an enormous amount of money has been spent recently on various initiatives connected with computers, including the sums wasted on Y2K fixes. The willingness of corporations to throw money at all kinds of Internet projects resembles in many ways an arms race. In my own calculations--based on cash and not on bent numbers--the contributions of IT-producing industries to economic growth turn out to be a still respectable but more credible 9 percent.
KM proponents need to think critically when examining industry metrics and must learn how to recognize bent numbers. The boosters of immodest claims and inflated metrics will continue to proliferate, prosper and perhaps even undermine KM projects until a better understanding emerges of the contributions it can make. Knowledge management is a good idea in its own right, and exaggeration will only devalue it.
Paul A. Strassmann originated the trademarked concepts "information productivity", "return-on-management" and "knowledge capital."
© 2001 Freedom Technology Media Group