5.2 Tangible and intangible benefits and costs
Depending on your background and experience, you may well be familiar with a variety of definitions of tangible benefits. In a commercial context a relatively straightforward approach is to define ‘... [a] tangible benefit as one that affects an organisation’s bottom line and an intangible benefit does not’ (Remenyi et al., 2000, p. 7). Alternatively Ward and Daniel (2006, p. 107) define a ‘business benefit’ as ‘an advantage on behalf of a particular stakeholder or group of stakeholders’. In the first case it is clear that a benefit should be ‘hard’, for example, increased output, increased speed of processing, detection of illegal immigrants, and so on.
In the second case, where the benefit is an advantage, it would appear we have far more scope for deciding what that benefit is. Ward and Daniel are clear, however, that benefits should be observable or measurable. An observable benefit is defined: ‘By use of agreed criteria, specific individuals/groups will decide, based on their experience or judgement, to what extent the benefit has been realised’ (op. cit., p. 173). A measurable benefit ‘is one where measures either exist or can be put in place that will enable the improvement in performance to be determined after the event’ (op. cit., p. 174).
Identification and/or quantification are the key determinants in the approaches outlined above. However, intangible benefits are often difficult to identify. Where they are identified, the scale or even the nature of the benefit is difficult or impossible to measure and quantify. For example, has the purchase of a wireless keyboard and stand for the laptop on which I’m writing this unit really improved my output (defined by me as the number of words I type without error)? Or am I simply more comfortably seated (my seating position is more ergonomically correct) or feeling more relaxed today than I was yesterday?
As the scale of what we are evaluating increases, so the potential for both tangible and intangible benefits increases. Additionally, and importantly, both tangible and intangible benefits may ‘unfold’ over time. That is, they may not be visible in the short term, or may even transform from intangible to tangible benefits, or vice versa.
Clearly, all of the above points apply equally to costs, but they do not, of course, apply to all forms of evaluation and assessment: only when designing or undertaking ex-post (post-implementation) and summative evaluation. The challenges faced by technology assessment or ex-ante evaluation in trying to define the costs and benefits of a technology or project or programme are obvious from the discussion in Section 4.1. Consequently it can be argued that any of the costs and benefits identified and used for these forms of evaluation are really just estimates.
Activity 16 Tangible and intangible benefits of a compulsory ID card
Identify four tangible and four intangible benefits of an ID card that incorporates the technologies that were planned for the UK ID card or a comparable example. Your argument can be based on the UK example or any other of your choice.