Objectives versus outcomes

A flower in a droplet - Spisharam - http://www.flickr.com/photos/spisharam/2401019802/ Following the Technology for Good event on Monday last week and my time in Las Vegas at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association conference, I wanted to explore a couple of the issues that keep popping up in presentations I give on technology strategy. The first of these is the difference between objectives and outcomes.

When people come to me, asking me how they should deploy technology for their organisation, I normally ask, “what are your objectives?”. It may seem a fairly obvious question and often I get rather obvious answers. But it’s rare for anyone to actually talk about objectives. Most people focus on outcomes.

The distinction is actually quite clear: an outcome is a product of business and technology strategy. So, to sell more widgets, access more clients or increase brand awareness are all outcomes. Objectives relate to specific targets and processes which may help collectively to achieve outcomes, but which are discrete criteria around which tactics can be built. For instance, if an outcome is ‘to sell more widgets’ then a set of technology strategy objectives will collectively answer the question, ‘how will technology help to sell more widgets?’.

Of course the problem with objectives is that many organisations really have no idea how technology may help to deliver these outcomes. Or alternatively, clients will have preconceptions about the value of specific technologies, and will make broad (and often inaccurate) statements about how Facebook or twitter will deliver bus loads of new widget buyers.

For the most part, organisations really don’t know what their technology objectives are, or at least they have not sat down and tried to articulate them. From a business planning perspective this is clearly problematic, as return on investment in technology solutions then becomes a matter of dragging together analytics and guesstimating about the infuence and impact of technology strategy on sales/awareness. These kinds of ex post facto ROI metrics are rarely useful because they are focused on specific technologies, not on how technology should be deployed to solve a problem.

The best way I can illustrate why this is an issue is by case study. Let’s look at an example of someone I spoke to at the Technology for Good event at which I presented last week. One attendee came up to me at the end of the day and said they wanted to raise the profile of their charity by using social media to communicate the plight of a vulnerable group of people.  But they were worried that profiling these people might be considered exploitative. The discussion covered the following territory:

OUTCOME: More donations and better profiling of the charity.
INITIALLY CITED OBJECTIVE: To communicate the stories of people who are supported by the charity in such a manner as to elicit more donations and attract higher brand identity.
ETHICAL PROBLEM WITH OBJECTIVE: Need to be cognizant of vulnerability of the beneficiaries of the charity, and ensure that they are not being commercially or socially disadvantaged by coverage.
ACTUAL OBJECTIVES: To use technology to support sensitive capture of beneficiary stories, and to train staff in both sensitive engagement with vulnerable people, and compelling presentation of their stories in technology-mediated channels. Also to train staff and volunteers in ongoing engagement with supporters as well as beneficiaries of the charity’s work.

Tactics can emerge from the actual objectives, not the initially cited objective (which is more or less an outcome anyway).  In the case described above, it soon became clear that the business problem was not a matter of where their likely buyers/donators were interacting online, but was more an issue of content creation for technology-mediated communication channels.  The opportunities for profile enhancement embedded in the technologies had produced a content and human resource issue.  Thus the ‘technology strategy’ inevitably involved finding the right local people to capture stories, as well as giving those people sufficient training in sensitive engagement to be able to communicate those stories in a non-exploitative manner.  Of course that training also involves exposure to emergent technologies and efficient use, but this is contextualised by the strategic objectives.  And as is always the case, strategic use of technologies involves far more than capitalisation of the opportunities of a specific technology-mediated channel.

One of the worst errors of a technology consultant is to tie technology strategy to hastily described outcomes, rather than carefully considered objectives and tactics.  You need to see the whole picture of what businesses are doing and to see how they want to engage with the range of audiences they serve, in order to adequately shape a technology strategy.  And to assume that the technologies themselves operate in isolation from human resources and communication is to seriously compromise a strategy. The first step in creating a successful technology strategy is therefore to break down general business goals into technology-oriented outcomes, and then narrow these down to specific objectives, and then look at the implications of those objectives.  Only then will it be possible to effectively measure a technology strategy.

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