Posted by Dion Hinchcliffe.

Share this article

Most people would agree that the way we work together has changed quite a bit over the last few years. Or more accurately, how we can better collaborate has vastly improved, largely because of new digital tools, along with important new supporting concepts that they enable (see podularity, Holacracy, etc.)

But just because there are better ways of working, doesn’t mean that we’ll adopt them.

A large number of organizations even today are still attempting to understand the rationale for applying the latest collaborative tools and techniques to their organization. Along their journey towards modern collaboration, they have often encountered a range of structural and process-related barriers to success, from which we’ve learned many good lessons along the way.

A significant part of the issue, as I’ve noted in the past, is that some of the more effective new modes of collaboration — such as social media — were never designed for the business world to begin with. Thus, instead of a major potential boon, as the data consistently shows year after year, it’s often perceived as “a risky medium that we are forced to confront” to quote the useful and detailed Deloitte/MIT SMR study on the topic that I participated in last year. This approach has led to a variety of internal cultural obstacles in many organizations, putting aside the necessary changes to mindset, habits, and business processes required in order to access the benefits of these exciting but often challenging new forms of collaboration.

Related: How to Improve Global Workforce Collaboration

Strategic Benefits of Better Collaboration with Social Media and Technology

This brings us to the question of motivation and purpose. I generally urge collaboration initiatives to keep in mind — as they take the long journey to modernize the way they work — to maintain a focus on achieving the concrete, documented, and substantial benefits in doing so (see visual above.) This has to be the sustained objective of any well-designed collaborative improvement program.

What does such an program look like? It now generally means taking a highly social, digital, mobile, and multi-channel view of mass interaction and team cooperation in most organizations and using their unique capabilities to directly drive these better business outcomes.

The Measurable Value of Connectedness

Certainly, the improvement of human collaboration is much more of a journey than a destination. However, it can to a large extent — and often specifically because of the new technologies — be measured, managed, and optimized. Much of the conversation about modern collaboration today revolves (as it should) around the human factors, as in making our workplaces much more fit and appropriate places for today’s workers. However, this doesn’t mean we can eschew close management and measurement of the process of improvement. In fact, if you don’t, most of the results you encounter will largely be accidental. Thus, collaboration by design is the desired process to achieve specific business benefits (even though you’ll get many emergent outcomes as well.)

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times, how to measure ROI for new types of collaboration. Fortunately, the answer to this is actually fairly straightforward but requires some discipline and forethought. First, measuring ROI requires baselining the performance of the part of the organization being improved with new tools and techniques. Second, causal ties have to be identified between the improvements in key measures of performance — typically pre-existing and respected KPIs that are already being captured– with notable events in the the collaborative medium.

Identifying ‘notable events’ is the hard part in this equation, as you may not even be aware of them when they happen and are highly fluid in nature, making them frustrating to identify. These can involve a sudden temporal increase in collaborative messages in the new work environment (such as an enterprise social network or unified communications platform) or it could be the involvement of just the right person at the right time. The former is fairly easy to casually tie, the latter is more difficult. Either way, over time, by sustaining an active measurement and correlation process, the picture of what you are actually accomplishing begins to emerge.

But this kind of business analytics only verifies the benefits of designed or accidental collaboration improvements. It behooves us to understand what sort of benefits there are to be had and how can they best be accessed, so we know how to design for and then measure them. In the visual above, we summarize some of the latest research along with findings that have now been verified year-after-year, such as McKinsey’s excellent annual Web 2.0 surveys.

The Benefits of Improved Collaboration

The numbers on collaborative improvement speak for themselves, but most organizations won’t attain these levels right away. An organization that deliberately focuses on what makes the new collaboration tools and techniques more effective can reach — and even sometimes exceed — the benefits enumerated below, the yearly accrual of which can easily justify the typical collaborative improvement program.

  • Better collaboration provides a wide range of functional and non-functional rewards. This includes double-digit gains in speed of finding knowledge, expertise, customer retention, revenue, and profit growth. The same is true for overhead: Better collaboration can reduce travel cost and time to market.
  • It’s not just about doing the same work with higher performance, but also ensuring access to just as important less-tangible benefits. The less quantifiable outcomes of new forms of collaboration are by definition more difficult to measure, though they sometimes can be. Certainly better customer and worker satisfaction is fairly measurable and is actually a key benefit to better collaboration. Harder to measure but still quantifiable is the rate of successful innovations and ideas, better visibility into operations, and the connecting together and breaking down of silos. Better competitiveness results as well, according to many studies, including the Deloitte report cited above.

The good news: these numbers also show that considerable progress is being made today by many companies on their way towards a brighter collaborative future. Certainly, productivity and efficiency gains are usually the most interesting returns in the short term for many organizations. Often, demonstrating this is actually crucial to continuing the journey at all. I’ve encountered more than a few collaboration projects that have been stopped by failing to adequately describe the benefits they’ve delivered so far.

But it would be a major mistake to entirely enumerate the benefits of better collaboration as purely a numbers game, though it will always be that too. New modes of collaboration are changing the rules of business in terms of how things gets done and who does them. The implications are many and profound, but access to them is largely prevented until you’re willing to make the transformative changes required. But realization of them is, however, essential to the long-term survival of most of our organizations.

This then is the imperative for better collaboration, as it often means access to our very future.

Related: What is the future of work?