The Productivity Paradox: Accounting for Returns on IT Investments

The Productivity Paradox: Accounting for Returns on IT Investments

There has always been somewhat of a struggle between the IT department and “management”, much of the difficulty existing with the need to demonstrate clear returns on investments for IT purchases.  Unfortunately, expenditures in information technology are often the result of short-term views of long-standing problems, applying “solutions” that do not fully address the requirement or which do not deliver the productivity or performance gains expected, particularly in a dynamic and rapidly changing business environment. The assumption is that a wise investment in information technology will result with improved profitability and performance.  Demonstrating this on paper is not always easily accomplished.

There is a great deal of research on the subject of accounting for returns on IT investments.  Some of this research describes “The Productivity Paradox”, referring to early studies on the “relationship between information technology and productivity, and finding an absence of a positive relationship between spending on IT and productivity or profitability”. [1]  Previous to the emergence of cloud computing and widely available remote and mobile technologies (and now possibly even more with the prevalence of available options), businesses invest heavily in IT infrastructure and applications which deliver nominal benefit to the business when measured against the cost of acquisition and implementation.  Heavy IT investments are made with little or no measurable benefit to profitability, even if operational performance improvements are created.  In many cases, the difficulty in “proving” benefit from information technology investments rests with the lack of information relating to impacts in non-operational areas, such as with investors, auditors or analysts.

The early research has become a foundation for making the argument that accounting professionals should be more directly involved in determining the value and impacts of IT investments – due largely to the fact that accounting professionals are generally familiar with the variety of formulas and approaches which become relevant in measuring the effects of IT purchases.  Information technology spending will result in short-term impacts, but will impress on the business over the longer view as well. With a foundation in accounting principles, valuation and analysis, and accompanied by IT knowledge and experience, management accounting benefits from an improved ability to recognize the relevance and value in IT implementations even where no direct profit improvement is visible.

Can difference in firm performance be explained by differences in IT investments?
Can differences in firm performance be explained by differences in IT investments?

Emerging technology models are having huge impacts in business capability as well as risk, and this new paradigm requires that accounting professionals apply their skills to understanding more fully the influences from and results of IT spending in the enterprise.

Having a basis for studying valuation and recognizing the good and bad of focusing on various key measurements (return on assets vs equity vs sales vs investment…) is essential in developing a “formula” for predicting impacts of and potential returns from IT spending, and solving the puzzle that is the productivity paradox.

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[1] Journal of Information Systems Vol. 16; “Returns on Investments in Information Technology: a Research Synthesis”

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