Businesses invest considerable sums of money with vendors like Box, Cisco, Google and Microsoft for a collection a technology we call collaboration tools. As an analyst, though, the question that has dogged me in watching this space is "why?" As in "what is the actual value a business gets from investing in collaboration technology?" The vendors' rationale for acquiring collaboration tools has shifted in emphasis over time, going from a conversation on cost savings to one on productivity gains. However, cost savings is an undifferentiated and limited message while "increasing productivity" can feel ephemeral because it is difficult to measure. Yet my inquiry queue remains full of companies trying to figure out how best to deploy these technologies and my briefings calendar is filled with startups and incumbents pitching new offerings in this space. This brings me back to my original question: Why?

We've recently opened up a new stream of research on the use of collaboration technology in customer experience ecosystems that is beginning to give us a clear answer. Ecosystems are networks of people (employees, customers and partners) who collectively contribute to the quality of a customer experience. To ensure all parties in these networks are on the same page, they must be able to access information and work on it with others. This is where collaboration tools come in handy. We're early in this research, but already we're seeing collaboration tools ensures business leaders can:

  • Alter how employees interact with customers. Healthcare non-profit Health Leads is trying to change how physicians treat disease in low-income patients by helping the doctors connect patients to social services that can ameliorate their socio-economic issues. A key part of this effort is using Salesforce Chatter to allow Health Leads' patient Advocates to collaborate with subject matter experts to properly identify the patient's needs and locate the appropriate resource. We detail this story in an upcoming case study.
  • Increase the pace of product innovation. US restaurant chain Red Robin Gourmet Burgers is deploying Yammer to provide employees in the restaurant locations a clear line of communications to the company's operations managers. The funnel of real-time insights on product launches helped Red Robin reduce its product iteration cycle from 18 months to 1 month.
  • Provide clients greater transparency into the service. Payroll processor Safeguard World International deployed a project management tool, ProjExec, in conjunction with IBM's SmartCloud for Social Business to help its project managers better communicate with distributed project teams and clients. The technology allows the business and its customers to monitor the progress of an implementation, ensuring no steps are missed. The result? Clients report increased confidence in Safeguard's service.
  • Empower employees to make decisions in real-time. Perennial strong performer in Forrester Customer Experience Index Hyatt operates under the theory that hotel operations decisions must be made locally. To that end, they built a set of hotel monitoring tools called the "hotel productivity suite" in SharePoint Online. These tools allow hotel staff to share information on guests, rooms, and other aspects of the property, allowing the hotel managers to quickly make decisions based on the best available information.

What technology managers and customer experience managers should both note is we can begin drawing a direct line from these capabilities and revenue. For example, Red Robin's accelerated iteration process led to the most successful hamburger launch in its 44 year history. We think this is the case because collaboration technology — particularly cloud-based collaboration technology — contribute to giving a business's constituents three freedoms essential to building a successful ecosystem: the freedom to access and use information, the freedom to interact with individuals who can help solve problems, and freedom to move as necessary. However, the relationship between collaboration tools and healthy customer experience ecosystems won't flourish until:

  • Vendors define their products on business value, not features. Our examples show collaboration tool vendors have a great opportunity to partner with customer experience professionals. However, to do so, they must become smarter about the business value they create within ecosystems. This is where customer journey maps that show what challenges these tools help employees, partners and customers overcome become essential. They also will help vendors think more expansively about integration. For example, how can data from a Verint text analysis stream connected to a SharePoint workspace help a project team better anticipate and respond to customer problems?
  • Customer experience pros expand their definition of customer experience technology. For most customer experience professionals, a list of essential customer experience tools would not include email or team sites. Changing this perspective starts with embracing the three freedoms concept: You cannot serve customers if you cannot connect constituents with information and the people who can them use the information, all while providing those constituents the latitude to shift context as they do these things. This will allow customer experience professionals to work with their technology management partners to better deploy collaboration tools to better serve customers.