Are Businesses Missing The Benefits Of Collaboration Technology?

TJ Keitt
Senior Analyst
March 23, 2011

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a customer case study session hosted by Cisco. Representatives from two clients — SmithAmundsen (a law firm) and Republic Services (a waste management company) — discussed how they were deploying Cisco unified communication and collaboration technology within their businesses. While the two speakers presented compelling stories about the need for collaboration within business, what caught my attention was where their companies received value. The constant refrain was these technologies saved money on travel, office space and IT expenditures. This isn't a new story: last year at Cisco's Collaboration Summit, Vid Byanna of Accenture mentioned that travel cost reduction was a big driver for his firm adopting desktop video technology for its remote workforce. Nor is this a Cisco-specific story: I recently published a report that shows the majority of content and collaboration professionals say travel reductions is the #1 benefit of collaboration software. But does it teach us the right lesson about the value of collaboration software?

In general, when we think about finding ways to let employees come together in groups to do work, we assume some type of business benefit: faster problem resolution, more innovative ideas and quicker time to market are a few examples. So why, in a business world where 42% of the workforce is mobile, do just 19% and 9% of content and collaboration professionals see improved innovation and faster time to market, respectively, as outcomes of using collaboration software? I have a couple of ideas that I'll be testing in my research going forward. I think this disconnect springs from one of three places:

  • Collaboration tools are adjacent to the collaboration strategy. This theory argues that a company has a set of outcomes it wishes to see (e.g. quicker time to market) and has set up policies to facilitate actual collaboration between employees to achieve these outcomes. But the collaboration technology these companies have implemented isn't viewed as fundamental to the business's collaboration strategy. Instead, they are tools deployed by the business to lower costs (e.g. travel) associated with the collaboration strategy. Thus, the business measures the success it has with these technologies through overhead reductions.   
  • Collaboration tools are deployed before there's a clear collaboration strategy. This theory springs from haphazard way in which many businesses have deployed collaboration technology. From the executive suite, there is a demand "to be more collaborative." The IT department translates this to mean, "buy collaboration software." Of course, these actions are taken in absence of any real understanding of what outcomes the business hopes to achieve and how it will go about doing so. So, when it comes time to justifiy expenditures on collaboration technology, it's easiest to reach for the low-hanging fruit: reduced travel and other costs.
  • Benefits of collaboration tools beyond reduced operational costs are too hard to measure. This theory rests on the idea that observing the real business benefits of collaboration software come from examining the business processes they enable. And because these are specific to a job, there are no easy, generalizable measures the business can use to see how collaboration tools are helping the business. The result? As in the previous scenario, the business falls back to the easily observable cost savings.

Forrester has argued that remedying these issues requires content and collaboration professionals to align their technology decisions with the needs of their people, their business's objectives and a scenario-based strategy. We call this POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology), and my colleague Ted Schadler has a great report outlining this methodology. The work now, though, is to understand how the scenarios I've just described are playing out in business and how methods like POST can help these businesses better align their collaboration technology with a collaboration strategy.

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