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Measuring collaboration success

This article appears in the issue June 2013 [Volume 22, Issue 6]
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Businesses have long searched for the value of collaboration. Skeptics will say that the quest is a fool's errand. Many argue that knowledge workers are too rooted in traditional tools, like e-mail, to ever fully exploit the spectrum of value of today's social business and collaboration tools. However, evidence is growing that there is a road to measuring social business and collaboration success. The journey is marked by a series of small wins that, taken together, represent discrete business value.

Popular opinion has been that today's knowledge workers are faced with responsibilities that are too ad hoc and chaotic to be formalized. Yet companies like Atos Consulting (atos.net), ConocoPhillips, IBM and Cisco Systems are beginning to challenge this notion by studying the communications patterns around internal processes. The key is to focus less on the activities of individual actors and more on optimizing common, repeatable patterns among groups that drive optimal results.

To achieve the best results with social tools, start by focusing on areas of known inefficiency. The challenge is to define instances where knowledge workers struggle. Ask any knowledge worker and you are likely to hear that information is hard to find, access to expertise is constrained by personal networks, and there is no capacity to drive results collectively. According to Forrester Forrsights data, on average, 42 percent of information workers spend more than an hour a day just searching for information.

What makes success possible?

The issues are largely the same as those we faced in the 1990s when most knowledge management initiatives failed to demonstrate measurable outcomes. What has changed that will lead to success when previous efforts have led to failure? Three things make success more likely today:

1. Consumer technologies have reshaped communications in workers' personal lives.

2. Workplace technologies are finally ready to support more social interactions.

3. Firms increasingly use social and collaboration technologies to gain competitive advantage.

The last one is perhaps the biggest driver; if your competition is finding new efficiencies through social and collaboration technology, your organization may be at a competitive disadvantage if you ignore the opportunity. For many, the cost of not embracing social interactions is too high.

As we look to 2013 and beyond, we find a business environment literally at a tipping point. Forty-nine percent will have investments in social technologies this year, while 51 percent remain on the sidelines. It's one thing to recognize that we're at a tipping point; it's another to decide where you need to start.

Not all social business and collaboration business opportunities are created equal. To identify the best opportunity to introduce social business and collaboration, you must address key issues. At the most basic level, you need to assess how much value social business and collaboration will bring to a business process and how easy or difficult it will be to implement. To determine the potential of applying social business and collaboration to a given area of your business, consider the following framework.

Value and viability

Business value and viability factors are both measured with four key criteria each worth between one and five points, with a maximum of 20 for each. This can be filled for each individual process or business area (see Figure 1).

Business value results can then be plotted on a horizontal axis and the viability plotted on the vertical axis. Based on interviews, hundreds of inquiries, and input from Forrester social business, collaboration and business process analysts, we have plotted eight areas of business on a sample chart (see Figure 2 )

Leading-edge companies have been at this for a while now. They have begun to define patterns of success. Knowledge feeds results in two key scenarios:

  • Knowledge and expertise are the business outcome. In some business processes, knowledge and expertise are the end products. For some industries, like professional services, that is common. Yet most organizations have numerous processes where that is the case, with sales and marketing activities often at the forefront. For example, a complex sales proposal requires access to existing information and expertise to have the greatest possibility for success and lowest cost to produce.
  • Knowledge and expertise support the business outcome. Even in those instances where process is not intended  to be knowledge worker intensive, the ability to integrate knowledge workers into the process in a more meaningful way can dramatically improve business results. For example, instances where knowledge workers are needed for exception handling in very structured processes can be improved when social business and collaboration are deeply integrated into the process. A supply chain process does not depend upon real-time access to knowledge and expertise, until human exception handling is required; then, the ability to reduce time associated with human latency can be critical to success.

Start with sales

When considering high-value business opportunities for social technologies, start with sales processes. Sales processes are heavily dependent on knowledge worker efficiency. Better access to information and expertise, faster, can be the difference between making and losing a sale. Sales and marketing motivations and interaction-heavy activities are strongly aligned with the use of social technology. As a result, those groups tend to be early adopters of social technologies.

In two high-tech firms Forrester interviewed, the process of pursuing a complex sales opportunity and the areas of potential improvement were remarkably similar. In both cases, an accepted process was in place to drive a set of common activities: Opportunities were identified, sales pursuit teams assembled, existing assets like proposals and presentations were collected, and lastly new sales assets were tailored to the specific opportunity. In both firms, finding content and expertise and coordinating pursuit team activities without travel, proved challenging. Those issues are not new impediments to complex sales opportunities. However, the IT teams in those firms measured the impact of social technologies in terms of sales opportunity success rates.

More variables

Henry Ford once said that a customer "can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black." The reason was simple. Standardization lowers costs. The market responded to Henry Ford by taking its business elsewhere, and workers are responding to stringent corporate IT standards for mobile devices in a similar manner.  Cisco responded to that challenge with a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program that would serve the needs of employees who wanted to use BlackBerry smartphones, iPhones, iPads, Android-based devices and more options on the horizon. In addition, Cisco has a choose-your-own-device program for laptops, which the IT department funds. In providing more options to employees, however, the process of provisioning new devices became far more complex because more choices meant more variables. And, more variables meant higher help desk costs to track down issues.

While the provisioning of devices is generally pretty structured, significant human latency is introduced when help desk issues arise. If issues are already documented, the process follows the normal help desk procedure. However, the numerous new devices introduced new undocumented issues for Cisco, and it turned to the broad community to help quickly identify whether the issues were new or had already been addressed. By including the broad and motivated community of BYOD users, the company cast a wider net to identify expertise and existing content not immediately available to the help desk. The result was faster resolution of issues and lower help desk support costs. A loop was established to capture solutions in line with the process and feed the results back into a knowledgebase that users and the help desk could directly access.

Collective action

A lot can go wrong when manufacturing and delivering new pharmaceuticals, from quality control to packaging to shipping. In such a complex process with strict regulatory compliance in place, problem resolution is often time-consuming. Small supply chain glitches can delay product introduction by weeks or even months, and the financial repercussions can be staggering.

Tony Martins, enterprise social and supply chain expert, has focused on the broad role of problem resolution in business. He cited one example in the introduction of new products specifically related to problem resolution in setting up new manufacturing lines. The process of setting a new manufacturing line will, by nature, have unknown elements, he explains. Issues are exacerbated because solutions often require input from multiple parts of the organization.

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