The ROI of Social Collaboration

Group of Diverse People Discussing About Social Media

When most people think about collaboration, they often have specific features in mind. Some people think of the new Microsoft Teams, Yammer, or Slack. Others look at Skype, or the many different web conferencing platforms, as enabling collaboration. Still others think of SharePoint and Office 365. All of these tools provide varying degrees of collaboration and communication capabilities — but not one of them will meet the needs of every team, and every business requirement.

We are constantly looking for ways to plug the productivity gaps with whatever tools or platforms we use. I'm sitting here finishing up a whitepaper on the Digital Workplace, thinking about how the out-of-the-box experiences of each of these individual tools do not provide *all* the features and user experiences that their organizations require, or that their end users demand. A big part of the Digital Workplace vision, in my opinion, is to fill these productivity gaps — and at the center of this gap-fill is social collaboration. But what does that really mean? How does social fill the gaps — and help our collaboration strategies actually deliver the promised ROI?

We've seen the rise in the number of vendors offering services and solutions around the concept of the “social intranet,” but beyond a redesign of the UI around Microsoft’s out-of-the-box capability, the value of these solutions is unclear. For those people who endorse these products, I ask you: How does having a nice UI improve the gaps within SharePoint?

Successful collaboration requires more than just a pretty UI: it is a balance between technology, process alignment, and end user adoption — with the end user component being the most important of the three. Having a beautiful user experience is great, but when the novelty wears off and users still don't have the functionality they need, or if the features don't help them get actual work done, those users move on to the next solution.

One of the major benefits of participating in events around the world as a speaker and MVP is that it provides an opportunity to sit and listen to Office 365 and SharePoint experts, with their different backgrounds and perspectives, sharing ideas and solutions for common collaboration problems. What I have found is that there are very few unique circumstances. By and large, organizations around the world want to improve employee communication, enhance productivity, and ensure project or project success through collaboration. But are you confident that your collaboration strategy will deliver actual, measurable ROI for your business?

For those that know me well, you know how passionate I am about social technology. It is the gap-fill for limited tools and platforms. It is the method which brings together disparate workloads, by connecting people and conversations where formal integrations may be lacking. In my experience, the business benefits of social can be distilled down to five points:

  • Data context and correlation — As people interact with the content you upload, they relate your content with other relevant content, such as projects you might not be member of, studies that may correlate, or conversations on similar topics that you may not be aware of elsewhere in your organization. These conversations, tags, links, and sharing help to build context to your content that you alone might never be able to accomplish.
  • Questions and answers — It never hurts to have multiple means through which users can find the answers they need to business questions. As social becomes more and more of a layer between enterprise applications, we will use these tools to find quick answers — people are able to leverage their networks of experts much more quickly than, say, through a search page. Social provides a quick and easy way to share data and knowledge.
  • Identify expertise — Upload dozens of documents on a single topic, and you will likely be recognized as an expert (at least by volume) on a topic. But social helps surface subject matter experts (SMEs) directly, or more importantly, indirectly through their activities. As people like, rate, follow, and share content with SharePoint, they begin surfacing in search results as an expert because of their social expertise — expertise that you might not otherwise identify if not for the social tools used.
  • Extending search — Social builds, extends, and improves search through the dynamic creation of end-user-generated keywords, or folksonomy. As users connect and discuss content, they apply tags or keywords that help them personally relate to that content, and track themes or data trends in SharePoint. Every like, every tag, every rating or share helps improve the overall search experience by adding to the folksonomy, which then — through proactive governance — can help improve your system taxonomy.
  • Team connection — While the terms “social” and “collaboration” are often blurred, I like to separate their definitions by saying that social technology helps teams collaborate by building connections across traditional data silos. Social is the tool by which collaboration is achieved. Social helps teams connect and relate whether they are across the hall, across campus, or around the world — thus improving collaboration.

As you investigate various social collaboration options, you should always do so through the lens of the user experience, quantifying the business value through the productivity improvements provided to employees. Collaboration is more than putting a pretty UI across SharePoint — it’s about giving your employees the advanced capability they need to better connect, communicate, and get their work done.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and fractional-CMO for revealit.io, tyGraph, and Extranet User Manager.