When Are ‘Investments in the Future’ Just a Fad?

Scattered amongst this week's news on {complink 379|Apple Inc.}'s MacBook Air and record earnings announcements are releases regarding companies' green and/or social responsibility programs. On any given day, every third or fourth release on the business or PR wires that trade publications use is on something “green.”

(Here are a couple examples: Advantest Acts to Reduce Its Carbon Footprint With Renewable Energy; Ingram Micro Appoints New Strategy Executive, Brings Global Focus to Branding and Corporate Social Responsibility.)

If you scan our Website, you'll see it's pretty clear EBN editors and readers favor such endeavors. But there's also a bit of déjà vu . There are a couple of other trends the trade press covered that have since dropped off the face of the Earth. Here's why: Sometimes — as my colleague, Bolaji Ojo, points out — following the herd stops making business sense. (See: Apple Shares Fall After Record Profits. So What? It’s Only Profit-Taking.)

The first is the Malcolm S. Baldrige Quality Award. About 20 years ago you couldn't pick up a trade magazine that wasn't predicting which company would win the Baldrige award that year. The second is China. To some extent this is still going on — every company in the tech industry wants to make it clear to its shareholders and business partners that it's setting up operations in China.

The Baldrige doesn't come up much these days, and references to China are slacking off. Are quality and globalization passé ? Nope. Companies that were participating in these efforts have weighed the ROI, and some are backing off. This is not to say these efforts aren't worthwhile or valuable. However, many companies went after the Baldrige or went into China because that's what their shareholders and business partners wanted to hear. One supply chain manager told me 10 years ago that setting up a manufacturing plant in China actually added costs to his supply chain, but the company chairman was being pressured into going to China, so to China this company went.

Here is a question for the industry: Are such efforts done for the right reasons, and are they paying off? I never asked that question until recently.

{complink 577|Avnet Inc.} has just celebrated its 50th year on the NYSE and, to the best of my knowledge, is the first and oldest electronics distributor on the exchange. CEO Roy Vallee was asked which management fads have come and gone since his tenure, and the Baldrige Award came up. Vallee said that Avnet had gotten as far as semifinalist and pulled out of the contest. Here's why: The cost and effort of pursuing the award had diminishing returns. Baldrige's quality practices at Avnet were being implemented, and the process was reaping results. But the actual winning of the award — just filling out the application, for example — required so much personnel and paperwork that Avnet determined the return on investment had peaked.

When it comes to carbon credits and corporate responsibility, do your shareholders know what carbon offsets are, and do they care? Is “Corporate Sicial Responsibility” just today's a buzzword, or are you really going to call your noncompliant partners on the carpet? When does an “investment in the future” become just a fad? The trade media, corporate shareholders, and business partners should ask those questions now and look for the ROI in the future.

10 comments on “When Are ‘Investments in the Future’ Just a Fad?

  1. Anna Young
    October 21, 2010

    Fad or not, some investments are just absolutely necessary for companies that want to stay on top of their game. In the examples you cited, companies may think there are no visible and immediate payoffs from completing applications, for instance, for the Baldrige Award, but there could be subtle and immeasurable benefits that a company may never even know about. It is just like institutional advertising; you do it because it keeps your company in public eye. It reminds me of the kind of advertising Intel used to do with its “Intel Inside” slogan. Most consumers don't directly buy Intel products as a standalone product. They buy Intel products that have been assembled with other products into computers sold by companies like Acer, Dell and HP. Even though Intel's and Advanced Micro Devices products often have the same functionalities, many consumers came to associate Intel with the better PCs, in my opinion because Advanced Micro Devices didn't have a similarly memorable slogan. Avnet may be dissatisfied with going only as far as the semifinal in the Baldrige contest but that is certainly better than not applying at all.

  2. Jennifer Baljko
    October 22, 2010

    Hi Barbara,
    I agree with Anna. The price of ignoring some fads is just too high (i.e. losing customer loyalty, being seen as a laggard, etc). Looking at it another way, what if companies, many years ago, didn’t invest in lean supply chain practices, ISO quality standards, Six Sigma certification, or ERP systems? A few companies took some bold steps, it created a ripple, and caused a wave of massive changes in the high tech supply chain. By putting these things in place, companies raised the bar of expectations, I would say, for the better.

    Of course, though, companies have to vet out which fads will likely move beyond the “buzz,” will be supported by customers, and will hopefully making a lasting impression both inside the organization and hopefully on the world. Maybe it’s a like betting on the MP3 player, DVD, or digital cameras and having the foresight or business intuition to know which trends will stick and which one will go the way of the vinyl record, the VHS player, or 35 mm film.

    As reflected in Laurie Sullivan’s post and related comments, labeling initiatives that may have been seen as a fad way back when have changed both corporate and consumer behavior (my own included). That’s evidence of the trend that did pay-off – perhaps not in big, obvious ways, but certainly in more subtle manners.
    And, who do you think would win the Baldrige if companies took it serious again? Or maybe, there’s going to be a new prize on the horizon that will temporarily be the next Holy Grail of Greatness.


  3. Ariella
    October 22, 2010

    The Avnet experience is interesting.  It reflects well on the business sense of the company.  It did not allow the goal of winning the prize to take over the business to the point of a negative ROI.  Whatever happens to be the fad of the moment, a company has to look at it in context to see if it fits in with the company's own goals for the future.

  4. bolaji ojo
    October 22, 2010

    Ariella, At the National Electronic Distributors Association executive conference in Chicago earlier this week, Stephen Kaufman, former CEO of Arrow Electronics, the archrival of Avnet, stressed companies must not give away value services. His exact words were: “Distributors need to showcase and sell real value.” Kaufman left Arrow about 10 years ago and he was pushing that message even then. I wasn't too surprised to hear him say again this time that distribution customers still want “value' for free.

    This is relevant to the discussion here. Value is an amorphous concept. It's difficult to determine and measure. So is return on investment, any investment, including the ones made solely for the “future” as Barbara points out. How do you know when the payback will come in; what can the payback be attributed to; is there a line direct from a specific investment to a specific return? These are questions that may not be easily answered. So, companies have to do their best estimates and hope they do not over-reach on any end. The investments made for the future may or may not yield the expected results; but we would never know if no investment was made, would we? And, if we do make the investments and something comes out of it, who can say what it derived from? Companies must risk something or they would not get something in turn.

  5. Ariella
    October 25, 2010

    Of course, there is the notion of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”  But that has to be balanced by another aphorism: “Look before you leap.”  A company has to not just jump on the bandwagon but figure out if the bandwagon will take the business closer to its goals or further away from them.  One of the things that stuck most with me from the Internet Evolution 60 Days of Executive Education was Tom Nolle's advice with respect to cloud computing.  It applies to any fad, as well.  It was to not just go for it because it is considered trendy or cool and to not take on a cloud project until one has planned the whole thing out very carefully.  Otherwise, the company is courting disaster with something half-baked that will cost them resources, including precious time and money.  It takes careful consideration and planning combined with realistic expectations for timeframe and payoff. 

  6. Barbara Jorgensen
    October 25, 2010

    Great feedback. Maybe what I am currently perceiving as a fad is the result of the ripple effect that Jenn mentions. Maybe all the green news is not a fad but the evidence that a few companies taking a stand is having the desired effect. There is no question that the quality practices in the electronics industry have vastly improved since Baldrige and Six Sigma came to the forefront. There is no downside to better quality or companies going green.

     I think upside/downside regarding China depends on where you are coming from. The downside of course is job loss in the U.S. The upside is investment in developing economies and cheaper consumer goods.

     I guess my skepticism stems from whether I feel a company is giving something lip service vs. believing its truly committed. Is the company practicing green internally as well as promising not to pollute? Maybe that is the better question and the better measure of ROI.

  7. Ariella
    October 25, 2010

    I do think that some companies — or rather, the people behind them — are committed to green values themselves.  But that is certainly not the case for all.  I'll give you the example of my own neighborhood.  About a year or so ago, the sanitation district distributed yellow garbage cans with green lids to each household. These were supposed to hold recyclables like plastic, metal, cardboard, and newspaper. Odd, you may think, to put all these together, as paper is not recycled in the same fashion as plastic. But it didn't matter because the sanitation workers simply dumped the contents of the yellow cans into the same garbage trucks that carried non-recyclable trash.  All the fanfare about going green, in this case, was just window dressing with no real change in practice at all!

  8. Barbara Jorgensen
    October 26, 2010

    The companies I truly respect are those that are embracing green inwardly as well as outwardly. One example is Newark and the Premier Farnell Group. They took the lead on compiling RoHS information and making it available to their customers even before RoHS became mandatory. Not only do they point to their green products for customers but they provide green design information and green legislation coverage and updates. Internally, they recycle all their cardboard, paper and packing materials–they are a distributor so this is a lot of stuff–use soy-based inks in their catalogs (which customers continue to want in print); and have built or retrofit facilities for lighting and energy efficiency. They are also working with packaging providers to see if there are ways to stop using plastics in things such as bubblewrap. They walk the walk and talk the talk. Not every corporation does this–they may buy carbon offsets but continue internally the way they always have. It takes a little more digging to find whihc type of company you are dealing with, but as a supplier, customer or investor it's worth asking the extra questions.

  9. Ariella
    October 26, 2010

    Barbara, it's interesting that you note that most customers still want their catalogs in print.  I still get sent paper catalogs from retailers like Lands' End and LL Bean, even though I always order from the online selection, which is more up-to-date than a mailed out catalog can be.  I haven't noticed their asking customers to opt out of receiving mailed catalogs.  On the other hand, utilities and credit card companies do offer paperless billing. I don't think most people opt for that, though, unless there is a monetary incentive. For example, LIPA used to enclose a postage paid envelope for customer's checks, as National Grid still does.  They still enclose the envelope, but it is not postage paid.  That gives customers the savings on postage as an incentive for paying online.  Mutual fund companies such as Vanguard charge a $20 yearly fee for all accounts below a certain minimum that get paper statements. Opting out of snail mail saves customers the fee. But in all these above cases, I believe that the companies' true motives are their own savings on postage, etc., rather than sparing the environment some unnecessary paper.

  10. Barbara Jorgensen
    October 26, 2010

    I found that interesting too. Catalog distributors such as Newark, Digi-Key, Mouser and Allied all offered their catalogs in CD-ROM form for awhile. All their customers complained–they still like to flip through pages, compare products side by side, carry the thing over to their colleagues, etc. Newark's catalog alone is thicker than the Manhatten NY phone book. Now, the distributors do both–CD-ROM and paper–and have cut back their printings of paper catalogs from  2-4x per year to 1 or 2x. They are listening to their customers–good for them!

    Paperless bills aren't working for me and my family, as much as I am 100% for them.  Instead, I make sure my Land's End, LL Bean and American Girl–I have only one child–a son–go in the recycling bin almost as soon as I get them.

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