For all the hype and enthusiasm about social collaboration and the rhetoric about the potential it has to bring about huge changes in the way an organization operates, it remains extraordinarily hard to find good examples of where a business can justify its investment in clear financial terms.

That’s not to say that there are no identifiable benefits in today's social collaboration success stories. But these are often anecdotal, tied to specific use cases and more indicative of the broader opportunity for the business, rather than necessarily demonstrating a return in financial terms. For early adopter organizations that already bought into the concept and are seeing evidence emerging in their own business context, this may not be a problem. But for the majority that are not trailblazers in this space -- those just starting to look at whether social collaboration is a worthwhile investment opportunity -- it's not surprising that they want real, tangible, evidential proof of its value.

The Search for ROI Continues 

So why are ROI examples for social collaboration so hard to come by? Many argue that it’s because the benefits of social collaboration -- like knowledge management before it -- are intangible in nature. That better sharing of knowledge, better communication and increased connectivity between employees (for example) is not a measurable entity, that it’s represented in the culture of the organization. While I absolutely agree about this being about transforming an organization's culture, I disagree that that means you cannot measure the impact of that shift, at least in part -- but I'll come back to that later.

I believe the real reasons why we don't see many clear examples of cost-based ROI for social collaboration are in fact threefold:

  1. It's still early days for this technology area in terms of broad, enterprise-wide adoption, and therefore the number of established, successful case studies is very small. Even the most well-publicized success stories don't come close in technology adoption statistics to the existing preferred enterprise communication medium, i.e. email, and often they only achieve up to 20 percent adoption in real terms.
  2. This is a business change exercise (not just an IT deployment) with the goal of changing the behaviors of people right across the organization. Even with the most committed and well-resourced program in place, this will take several years to achieve, particularly in large organizations. In that time there's the potential for a wealth of other factors which could impact the performance of the organization, such as leadership changes, mergers or acquisitions, or changes in market conditions, and this will inevitably skew the ROI calculation.
  3. Organizations typically don't think about measuring ROI -- or any kind of cost justification at all -- for social collaboration until the initiative is well-underway, by which time the data is hard to retrieve.