One of the most commonly cited issues with collaboration initiatives (and of course with the knowledge management initiatives which preceded them) is the difficulty that organisations have with demonstrating the value they have gained from their investment in a way that satisfies their numbers-focused business leaders. There are many reasons why this is so: perhaps the most frequent response to this is that many of the benefits from collaboration - such as better sharing of knowledge, better innovation, or increased agility - are "soft" or "intangible", and are consequently difficult to measure in quantifiable terms. While there is some truth to this, I believe in most cases this is purely a cop-out response, a way to avoid solving the difficult problem.
A more real reason for the difficulty in measuring success of collaboration is down to the significant time it can take for a collaboration initiative to reach its conclusion. Since for many organisations (particularly large enterprises) it involves a major business change project to shift the organisational culture from top to bottom into one that is more open and interactive, the process does not (and cannot) happen overnight, taking many months and more likely years to complete. In this time, it's not just the collaborative culture that will have changed; business leaders may have changed, the sponsor of the initiative may have changed, and many other processes across the company may have changed - indeed the company may have also gone through one or more M&A exercises in that time. Proving that a particular effect is the result of your collaboration initiative, rather than some other factor (or more likely, a combination of many different factors) is very challenging.
However, in many cases, the most obvious reason why organisations' are unable to measure their success in a tangible way is that they have nothing to benchmark the result against. How can you show that your organisational efficiency is dramatically improved through better collaboration if you can't say how long something took before? It's amazing how often businesses tell me that they've seen improvements without any way to quantify that. And if they are not challenged by their executives to provide those tangible figures, then I guess why would you do it. But I know from speaking to organisations who look to these companies for guidance and confidence before embarking on their own collaboration initiatives, how frustrating that can be.
So if you are just setting out on your own collaboration journey, let me reassure you that it is not impossible to measure your success, but to do this you need to start planning ahead right now. Before you even start looking at technologies to implement, you need to think about why YOUR organisation needs to collaborate better - what are you trying to achieve? Once you know this, take the time to understand how things are done now: for example, how long does it take to bring a product to market from initial conception? How much time do your staff spend managing email? How much do you spend on customer support? How much time do they spend travelling to meetings? How long does it take to "onboard" new staff? How much time is lost through duplication of work? Etc. etc. The questions will vary of course depending on the problems you are trying to solve, but it is vital to act now and take advantage of this pre-initiative time to arm yourself with the data that will help you to prove your ultimate success. This approach will not only give you a way to track your progress over time, but it will also help to focus your strategy, which will in turn improve your chances of success.
Measuring successful collaboration is not the dark art it is sometimes portrayed as being; it just needs a little focus and forethought (and a LOT of patience and persistence).