The Elusive ROI of Improving Communication


One of those irritating, tactical quirks of doing daily business prompted a quick chat here at IT Business Edge that -- in my tactical, irritating world view -- shed some light on how many businesses use collaboration software, at least in its infancy.


Long story short: I asked our tech guys if there was any way to set an individual Outlook message to compel recipients to Reply to All, instead of replying only to the original sender. Splintered e-mail brainstorming threads make me nuts; the splintered reply is almost always the smartest feedback you get. That's just the way it is.


The response from IT support was that I was talking about a custom Outlook message template, and of course that's time and money. (Because I am a tinkerer at heart, I plan to experiment with this in my copious amounts of free time, but that's neither here nor there.) At any rate, that conversation was over, because I most often can just skip Outlook for this kind of communication and use the simple SaaS collaboration platform I subscribe to for my team.


And there it is in a nutshell: We pay about $20 a month for my Must Reply to All e-mail template.


Don't get me wrong, it's money well spent in my book. We don't use our tool as much as we should, I have to admit, and it does have its limitations (I'll abuse the power of having a blog and note that its wikis are not searchable, which strikes me as bizarre). But netted out, the ability to post team updates and brainstorm on content ideas in an open, collaborative and (mostly) searchable environment is well worth our monthly subscription.


What this tool has not done is revolutionize our business processes. We had e-mail, a personnel directory and a networked file server for documentation before it came along. Believe it or not, most office suites had versioning and sharing built right in before wikis introduced the notion to the blogosphere.


I know there are case studies about how companies are realizing huge benefits from the customer communities they host and foster, but that's largely because they give a semi-structured platform for people who don't work for the company to communicate, often anonymously. I have yet to read about a compelling instance of hardcore business intelligence being applied to an internal "social network." I can imagine a dashboard on some executive's desktop calculating whether the collaborative knowledge-management system's chatter about a new product launch is positive or negative. But I have no such dashboard, and I doubt many CEOs do, either.


I cornered our Ann All, who is working on a series of interviews about proving the ROI of social networks, and she tells me she is finding that most companies are using collaboration tools as a means to improve communication -- not totally revolutionize it. By "improve communication," I mean just overcoming tactical obstacles, like making it easy to search team messaging and documentation. Again, office suites have been offering perfectly useful -- but decidedly unsexy -- ways to accomplish this since the last millennium.


I'm sure most companies have loftier aspirations that my Must Reply to All fixation, but it's hard to assign monetary value to the fact that users like editing wiki pages more than they like editing shared Word docs. I'm not saying it's not real and a benefit -- hey, I'm the guy who gets a collaboration-platform subscription charged to his credit card -- but if you can't map it to a line graph somehow, it's hard to prove ROI.


I am interested in seeing how BI (and even AI) vendors begin to address all that unstructured/semi-structured data that's piling up inside corporate social networks and turn it into those irritating, tactical numbers that drive business. If you know of any products or success stories, please let us know.