Enterprises as well as small and midsize businesses are investing in collaboration tools, but beyond reducing travel expenses and improving corporate communications, they aren't seeing a lot of benefits, according to a recent survey by Forrester Research.
Products like team workspaces, social tools like blogs and wikis, desktop video conferencing, and unified communications solutions are among the most popular, the March 21 report said. However, of the 12 benefits of collaboration technology that Forrester tracks, almost two-thirds of the businesses that are deploying such technologies are seeing between zero and four benefits.
Of those benefits, the two primary ones seen so far-reduced travel costs and enhanced corporate communications-are easy to gauge, according to T.J. Keitt, the lead analyst on the study. However, the real value of these tools will come when they also improve such areas as time to market, innovation and partner relationships.
"These two benefits are low-hanging fruit because they are easy to measure," Keitt said in the study. "A review of travel expenditures pre- and post-deployment of a collaboration tool can point to savings. Likewise, executives and the HR department using blogs and wikis to disseminate information instead of shipping paper is simple for the business to track. So it's easy to see why the majority of businesses view these as the foremost benefits of using collaboration technology."
To get beyond those basic enhancements, Forrester suggests introducing a wide variety of collaboration tools that can meet a growing range of business needs, and ensuring that those tools meet the needs of employees. The study indicates that once a business deploys four or five collaboration tools, there is a significant improvement in the number of survey respondents who say their company is benefiting from the technologies.
In addition, it's important to have the tools on hand when employees need them.
"For many business processes, the key is having the right tool at the right time," Keitt wrote in the study. "For example, a project team might need instant messaging for ad hoc communications, team workspaces for sharing documents and co-authoring, and desktop videoconferencing for team meetings. So C&C pros need to identify workers in dynamic business processes-like product development-and provide them with a range of tools that provide options for how they collaborate."
Vendors see a big market for collaboration technologies. Cisco Systems officials say it could be as much as a $30 billion opportunity. Cisco is among a wide range of vendors-the list includes companies from Hewlett-Packard and IBM to Microsoft, Avaya and Polycom-looking to gain greater traction in the space.
According to Forrester's study, companies are buying the technologies. Now the trick is to wring the most benefits from them, particularly in a world where more people are working at least part of the time outside the office. About 43 percent of information professionals work from multiple locations during a month, and 42 percent spend time working in locations outside of the corporate firewall, including at home and at customer sites, according to Forrester.
"The number of employees who need to communicate and collaborate with highly distributed teams will only increase as telecommuting becomes more prevalent and businesses emphasize collaborative interactions with partners and customers," Keitt said in the report.
In a blog supporting the study, he said there seems to be a disconnect between the growing number of mobile workers and the low percentage of businesses seeing improved innovation and time-to-market from collaboration technologies. Some of that disconnect comes from businesses using collaboration tools not necessarily to improve collaboration, but to reduce costs-such as travel expenses-associated with collaboration, Keitt said.
In addition, some businesses deploy collaboration tools before creating a clear collaboration strategy, and beyond reduced operational costs, it's difficult to measure the benefits derived from the technologies.
Businesses are going to need to get past these obstacles if they're to gain the true benefits of collaboration technologies, he said in the report.
"The key for broader collaboration technology adoption in the workforce is seamless integration into business processes," Keitt said. "For example, this can mean adding collaboration technologies to the product-lifecycle-management software to allow product managers to track events and facilitate interactions with engineers. Linking these tools will help improve metrics such as time-to-market because workers will be able to find people and information in the context of their workflows."