I find this to be a very interesting discussion in the enterprise collaboration space, especially since the topic of ROI is so oftentimes debated. Oddly enough though, we don’t hear enough about how failure is measured or reached. I heard Dan Heath (the co-author of Made to Stick and Switch) speak at a conference last year to a large group of retailers in New York; he used an interesting analogy which I think fits perfectly with the collaboration world.

When you have a baby that is starting to learn to walk it will naturally fall down a few times, you don’t look at the baby and say, ‘Well, so much for that, maybe walking just isn’t his thing.’ Instead, every time the baby falls down you encourage it to get back up and try again and eventually the baby walks and runs on its own two feet.

When the baby falls, is that considered a failure? Of course not. What about in the enterprise collaboration space? If an organization deploys something that nobody adopts, is that a failure? Do you just give up and admit that maybe this type of initiative just isn’t a good fit for the company?

Understanding Failure

Everyone has his or her own definition of failure and success. I once ran a startup for a full year that made absolutely no money; most people would consider that a failure, but I call it a real-life MBA program that costs well into the six-figures at many schools today. While the startup made no money, I learned more in that year than I would have at any school.

According to Wikipedia:

Failure refers to the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.”

I hear stories all the time from organizations that tried to deploy a platform which eventually nobody adopted, so they scraped it and went with something else. Would you call this a failure? In order to understand failure, you have to understand what success looks like. Yet many organizations don’t establish success metrics or KPIs (or perhaps it’s too early to tell what those metrics are or how they have changed), so does this mean that at the early stage of the game that we still don’t really have a good picture of what failure looks like?

I’m tempted to argue “yes,” that most organizations cannot fail because they don’t know what success looks like. Intellipedia was considered a failure by many, yet it seems as though the Federal Government is not giving up. Instead, they are adapting and taking the lessons learned and applying it to their future efforts.

Failure Versus Bump in the Road

So what’s the difference between a failure and an obstacle or a bump in the road? I’ve really been trying to find examples of enterprise collaboration failures but I (nor anyone I know) can point me to any. In my opinion, if an organization has tried something that didn’t work out and is now trying something else, then that is not a failure. When I personally refer to failures in this context, I’m looking for organizations that have tried to deploy something and then after a few attempts just gave up and discarded the efforts altogether.

At this point there have been plenty of enterprise collaboration case studies and examples, yet I have found that most of the organizations I have interviewed were not able to predict, measure or define what their success looked like. One of my favorite quotes around being able to understand ROI came from the CIO of MEC, a 1500+ person company based in company. The CIO stated:

I’d like to think it [Thought Farmer, the vendor they selected] has generated increased productivity, reduced waste, possibly improved user service. I think it has. The question is, how to tangibly measure that -- and by the way, as a medium size business, is it really worth our time trying to measure it?

I love that quote because it acknowledges the fact that being able to show a financial ROI associated with enterprise collaboration isn’t always the game.

Opening Up the Conversation

So now let’s open this up to a broader discussion around what success and failure and failure looks like. I’m curious to hear your ideas and thoughts on this topic, so leave a comment below!

Editor's Note: Jacob's company Chess Media is conducting a survey on Enterprise 2.0. Interested in participating? Read the details.