• You stroked a check to send a few of your staff members to a conference.
  • You stroked a check to purchase a new server storage rack.
  • You stroked a check to purchase that shiney-new virtualization stack.
  • You stroked a check for a new office to house your team.

Was it worth it?  Besides the unquantifiable “feel-good” aspects, can you draw a circle around the quantifiable results?  Was there a measurable return on investment?  Would you do it again?

Answering some of these types of questions is easy, while others are not.  For example, the virtualization stack provides a unit-based quantity and the items for which it integrates into (servers, operating system licenses, software applications licenses, hardware, power consumption, etc.) are also fairly quantifiable.  You can jot down numbers, paste them into a spreadsheet, add more numbers on a recurring cycle and then tally up totals, averages, trends, etc.  A real bean-counter’s wet dream.

But how about measuring the ROI on sending a few engineers or developers to a conference, or maybe a training course?  How do you quantify that?  The short answer is “it depends”.

I will go ahead and spoil part of this by saying:  If you don’t already have a means in place for measuring productivity of your staff, then don’t bother creating one while you’re also signing the PO to pay for that conference.  That’s like buying life insurance while the plane is spiraling into a foggy mountainside.  As Def Leppard would say (or sing): “Too late”.

There’s two ways this can be viewed.  One is that the benefit, or measurable positive gains, are underestimated.  The other, and usually most common, is that these are overestimated.  The boundary line shifts up and down based on things like, the economy, the latest quarterly profit numbers, the weather, the mood of the boss, and so on.  When times are good, the reluctance to spread a little Vegas conference cheer is relaxed.  But when the balance sheet is wobbly, the reluctance factor goes up faster than a gray-haired senator at a peep show after swallowing four boxes of Viagra with a martini.

The issue here is that when it’s easy to quantify things, we tend to let them quantify themselves.  When things are difficult to quantify, we knee-jerk towards selling them on their emotional or mental aspects.  Or at least the potential aspects.

Think of it like this, and I’d bet this isn’t unfamiliar either:  You walk in to see the boss and convince him/her that buying a new rack server will be a good investment.  Why?  Because it uses less power, has faster components, fits into a smaller space, combines more features, and produces less heat than the crusty old garbage it’s going to replace.  You can start adding up those numbers and print a spiffy color chart and graph to wow that boss into the next employee review session.

Then:  You walk in to see the boss and convince him/her that paying to send you and two colleagues to a conference for a week in [Fill-in-name-of-sunny-and-warm-resort-city], is also a great investment.  Why?  Because it will help infuse the team with a wider range of knowledge, the opportunity to expand their skills, broaden their exposure to newer tools and technologies, and therefore infuse them with a stronger desire to put those awesome new super-power brain nuggets to work for the (insert dramatic music here) good of the company.

You stand there with a Christmas-morning grin, eyes-wide open, nodding, as if saying “Yep.  Uh huh.  Can you feel how incredible this proposal is?!”  Then you get the tepid response of “Let me think it over and get back to you” with the monotone Ben Stein demeanor.  Days and weeks pass without any response.  Then you start thinking that the boss is just hoping you’ll forget all about it and move on to other things (quantifiably beneficial things, of course).

Why does this happen?  Because you didn’t offer up any metrics.  No numbers = No awesome business case.  No business case = no funding.  No funding = well, you get the idea.  You have to tie it all back to numbers (by the way, in most situations, “numbers” means “dollars”).  How you do that will depend on the culture you work within, but also will vary by the nature of business you’re in and the tools and processes associated with whatever conference or training course is being pursued.

A simple and often-successful example, is when a business is still in the early, or even “pre”, stages of pursuing virtualized servers in their data center.  After setting up a proof-of-concept lab, numbers are collected to clearly show the benefits in many areas.  After presenting those numbers to upper management, they rub their chins, nod and make moaning sounds of approval.  They are then told that training is required to pursue the rest of the potential to it’s optimal extent.

Tying a request back to a quantifiable benefit, even if it’s an indirect association, is often enough to sway the decision.  So, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to start compiling “real” numbers to justify the rationale on which you will base your next request to attend a conference or training course.  If you don’t have “real” numbers, don’t make them up.  That will only hurt you, and destroy chances for future opportunities, since the trust-factor will be dialed down to near-zero.

Keep in mind that a business exists to make money.  Period.  End of story. Anything else is either subjective perception, or delusion.  You may be on first-name terms with the CEO and chat about golf clubs in the restroom while zipping your fly back up.  But when the profits are falling fast, you’d better be a producer/earner, or have a drawer full of blackmail photos to insure you’re not on deck for layoff notices.

Be needed.  That’s the first rule.  Prove your value and trustworthiness.  Then your efforts to pursue the opportunities which are difficult to quantify for the suits will become easier.  But they have to have some basis on which to measure and compare the “before” and “after”, so they can answer the question themselves:  Are you getting your money’s worth?


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