Many companies have viewed investment in collaboration software as too hefty a leap of faith.
In principle, companies want to use these tools to foster engagement among employees and with customers. But enterprises want justification for introducing yet another, potentially costly, communication channel into the workflow.
Collaboration software tools enable people to work together even when they are located remotely from one another. They may involve Facebook-like applications that enable commenting threads and attachments all within a familiar-looking environment, or they may create forums or chat rooms for constituencies to engage with one another in a community of common interest. These communities may be internal to an organization, external to a company, or travel between public and private areas.
But the business case for collaboration may have finally arrived.
"Better customer service is the killer use case that we already know about," said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Rob Koplowitz. According to Koplowitz, companies are using collaboration software to connect internal corporate communities with public-facing ones to solve customer problems and innovate on products.
"I visualize it as this brick wall between those people out there, and our people in here," he said. "The break in the brick wall is around scenarios like better customer service . . . [where companies] allow those external and internal processes to intermingle."
And according to the data, companies may have finally wakened to the reality and importance of collaboration tools to foster customer relationships, to crowdsource new ideas and shepherd knowledge management. According to the July 2013 Forrester Research report "Setting the Technology Foundation for Your Social Business and Collaboration Strategy," 60% of IT executives now view collaboration software as a critical or high priority for conducting business today.
Customer service as the 'killer use case'
What top-line executives have come to see as important is gathering steam on the ground as well.
With community forums, some companies are saving staff time previously spent answering basic customer-support questions.
In 2007, for example, the Microsoft Dynamics team -- which manages enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management software applications -- was looking for a more graceful way for its discussion board members to get product information; information posted to the board was difficult to navigate through.
"You really had to sift through a lot of different products to get to the right information," said Eric Parsons, senior technical product manager at Microsoft Dynamics in Fargo, N.D. So the company installed Zimbra, an open-source-based collaboration tool and a unified communications technology.
The forum allows customers to get questions answered easily by other members of the community rather than drain support engineers' time. This crowdsourcing approach to solving problems can save customers money in terms of their support licenses and save engineers time by not having to post answers to commonly asked questions.
"We're able to manage a community with over 100,000 members and we get about 12,000 visitors per day," Parsons said. "We manage that with just a handful of admins managing the site."
Schneider Electric in Fort Collins, Colo., also wanted a collaboration software tool that could travel seamlessly between public customer forums and the company's private help desk system for more detailed customer support concerns.
The company specializes in energy and data center services such as automation and had inherited a patchwork of collaboration systems; the chaos finally came to a head in 2012.
"At last count it was something frightening like 25 disparate systems that ran the gamut, from Skype and Windows Messenger or forums to Salesforce Chatter" and other apps, said Todd Moran, director of social enterprise at Schneider Electric. "We said, 'Enough. We have got to stop this set of siloed applications.'"
These multiple places for gathering lacked consistency for employees and customers and were inefficient to handle customer needs. Schneider Electric decided to consolidate on Jive -- an internal and external collaboration software platform -- which centralized multiple systems and connected internal and external information.
Todd MoranSchneider Electric
That ability to move between the open member community and the help desk was critical in Schneider Electric's selection of the Jive platform, which Moran said was picked because of its granular permissions and ability to create "walled gardens" and open areas alongside one another.
For example, Schneider Electric created a community that enables members to interact and troubleshoot problems. Members can also file a help desk ticket from this same space, though that ticket gets routed to a private support community on the back end.
"We make them FAQs that make their way back into the public-facing part of the Jive support platform," Moran said. "That has been highly effective for us and reduced overall customer support cases," though he was not able to provide specific numbers.
Beyond customer service to customer engagement
Microsoft Dynamics and Schneider Electric have also used the forum model beyond customer support, to stimulate community engagement and even product innovation.
Rob KoplowitzForrester Research
To that end, Microsoft Dynamics has built gamification features on top of Zimbra to recognize community members for their expertise. Gamification does more than just provide a badge or other award system. It also helps members who are or want to become part of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program, which requires that MVPs participate actively in communities and demonstrate their knowledge.
"These groups are incented to answer questions to become MVPs and stay MVPs," Parsons said.
Parsons said that Zimbra's architecture makes it easy to customize features.
"You can utilize their hashtags, and their 'at' mentions, liking, commenting just by adding a few lines of code. You can get that functionality as part of your custom app. It's very easy to build on top of."
Schneider Electric is also thinking big in terms of community. It has used the Jive platform to institutionalize product feedback and innovation. In addition, Schneider Electric culls ideas from customer participation in its monthly product advisory group, which often leads to product changes in the company's biweekly updates to Jive and quarterly releases. While the PAG calendar and post-video recordings are published in Jive, the company schedules its group meetings using WebEx.
For more on collaboration:
Fast Guide to Collaborative Software
Enterprise collaboration tools move beyond social media toys
Business social collaboration: Where the industry stands
"This has been pretty powerful," Moran said. Customers "can offer specific feedback on functionality."
Moran said that Schneider Electric also uses the open community to generate initial ideas, "which helps with crowdsourcing ideas and co-innovation with customers."
This is part one of a two-part series on collaboration software tools. To read part two, which features tips on building healthy communities, click here.