Can’t Prove Collaboration ROI? You’re Not Alone

March 25, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Posted in business case, collaboration | Leave a comment

Proving the return on collaboration has always been fraught with peril.  If you’ve had difficulties doing that, you’re not alone.

Sure, discussion groups and wikis can be valuable, but how do you put a dollar figure on that?  Calculating ROI by using productivity measures (“We’ll save 15 minutes per employee per day, multiplied by the number of employees …”) can get you laughed out of the CFO’s office.  But “hard” ROI (provable, measurable impact on a company’s profit through increase of revenue or decrease of expenses, accurately attributable to a direct cause) for collaboration is possible only in a few specific cases such as web conferencing vs. travel or “projectized” infrastructure.  This was made only more clear in a set of interviews Burton Group has been conducting as part of our research into the impact the recession is having on collaboration initiatives. 

Our interviews did uncover one industry where the value of collaboration is more apparent than most: universities and their ability to receive grants. As one of our interviewees revealed “Granting institutions fund research and assume you have the infrastructure. If you don’t, you won’t win the grant. Proving you can collaborate with the others listed on the grant application [is critical, so we] have to demonstrate we can collaborate in that way … It’s an important part of the grant writing process.”

This isn’t surprising, given that the Web itself came into being as a way for scientists and academics to collaborate from geographically dispersed locations.  As the 3/12/09 edition of The Economist describes:

In the late 1980s, CERN was planning one of the most ambitious scientific projects ever, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC …  As the first few lines of the original proposal put it, “Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the question—‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’ This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”

And the rest is history.  That proposal (called “INFORMATION Management: A Proposal”) by Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web.

Jump to today and the need for academics to collaborate is the acute.  For example, one university we spoke with received about $1 billion/year in funding from grants. And every grant application that involved collaboration with academics at multiple spots on the globe (which is most of them) had to reinvent how they were going to work together.  We were told some individual projects cobbled their own collaboration together, another used seed money to hire programmers for a year to build a custom solution.  What a waste.  This seems like a perfect opportunity to be able to prove the value of having central IT implement a collaboration facility along with a beautifully crafted content chunk extolling its virtues that can be appended to every grant application.  Surely making a case for this infrastructure that plays a major role in winning $1 billion of grants (and incurs redundant costs for each project that builds a one-off solution) should be easy as cake! 

Alas, that is not the case.  At least, not at the universities I talked to.  We were told “The Institution has to see that as a threat to future success, faculty retention, attracting the best faculty, how good the grad students will be; but we haven’t gotten there.” 

The sunny side of this story is that if proving the value of enterprise-wide collaboration is even difficult for grant writing – where web based collaboration is required and the dollars at stake are huge – the fact that you haven’t been able to do it means you’re just par for a very difficult course.

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