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McNair s pessimistic view and instead assert the now prevailing notion that an organization s people or its human capital represent the critical enabler in the new economy. Harvard Business Review editor Thomas Stewart captures the essence of this notion succinctly and powerfully when he says, The most important of all are soft assets such as skills, capabilities, expertise, cultures, loyalties, and so on. These are the knowledge assets intellectual capital and they determine success or failure. 9 Consulting organizations offer a compelling example of creating value from intangible rather than physical assets. Consultants don t rely heavily on tangible assets, instead they provide value for clients by drawing on relationships with subject matter experts throughout the firm and knowledge from past client experiences to provide innovative solutions. A client engagement I was involved with provides an example: the client encountered a problem loading data for their new performance measurement software. Automatic data interfaces for the software (pulling data directly from source systems throughout their locations) would have required significant human and financial resources to build, and this was not considered a viable option. The alternative of manual data entry was also deemed unacceptable because it would prove a time-consuming and non-value-added activity for system administrators. Our team was tasked with finding an innovative and cost-effective solution. We convened a team of experts on various subjects: the scorecard software program, the Balanced Scorecard methodology, desktop applications such as MS Access and MS Excel, and client data sources. The newly formed team brainstormed various approaches that would satisfy the criteria of cost efficiency and very limited manual data entry efforts. In the end we determined our best approach was to build a new data entry tool in Excel. Data owners would enter their individual data in the spreadsheet, and e-mail it to the system administrator who would then automatically upload the information into the software. The spreadsheets were custom designed to contain only those measures for which each owner was accountable. This solution ensured that both the innovative and costeffective criteria were satisfied. The new system cost very little to develop and implement and eliminated manual data entry for system administrators. It wasn t the physical assets that led to this innovative solution to a client s needs, but instead the skillful combination of an array of knowledge held by the individual team members.
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chapter 5
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This kind of situation is happening in organizations around the globe in the transition from an economy based on physical assets to one almost fully dependent on intellectual assets. While this switch is evident to anyone working in today s business world, it is also borne out by research findings of the Brookings Institute. Take a look at Exhibit 5.1, which illustrates the transition in value from tangible to intangible assets. Speaking on National Public Radio s Morning Edition, Ms. Margaret Blair of the Brookings Institute suggests that tangible assets have continued to tumble in value:
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If you just look at the physical assets of the companies, the things that you can measure with ordinary accounting techniques, these things now account for less than one-fourth of the value of the corporate sector. Another way of putting this is that something like 75% of the sources of value inside corporations is not being measured or reported on their books.10
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If you happen to be employed in the public sector you may have noticed Ms. Blair uses the term corporations . Believe me, your organizations are being affected every bit as much as your corporate counterparts. The challenges represented by this switch are not going unnoticed in Washington. David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States said in a February, 2001 testimony to the U.S. Senate that human capital management is a pervasive challenge in the federal government. At many agencies human capital shortfalls have contributed to serious problems and risks. 11 In his President s Management Agenda, U.S. President George W. Bush echoes Walker s comments and adds that We must have a government that thinks differently, so we need to recruit talented and imaginative people to public service. 12 In yet another demonstration of the importance of intangible assets, companies are opening the purse strings for intellectual investments. On second thought, opening the purse strings is a bit like saying World War II was a little skirmish, considering the fact that American companies spend a staggering 36 percent of their revenue each year on human capital related investments.13 This transition in value creation from physical to intangible assets has major implications for measurement systems. The financial measurements that characterize existing methods of tabulation were perfectly appropriate for a world dominated by physical assets. Transactions affecting property, plant, and equipment could be recorded and reflected in an organization s
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