The importance of the network effect when adopting collaborative technologies

Just a few companies have made a concerted effort to reduce business travel through a combination of high-end telepresence systems and everyday technologies like WebEx. Most of the big users are, not surprisingly, tech companies that are acting in the spirit of “eat your own dog food.” British Telecom calculated that it was saving $330 million per year on avoided travel costs and time saved, and Microsoft pegged its savings at $90 million. Non-tech leaders such as P&G and Deloitte have installed dozens of systems around the world — you need the network effect to kick in and make the investment worth it. They’re saving millions every month on reduced travel expense.

This quote is from a provocative article about videoconferencing, that asks Will Videoconferencing Kill Business Class Travel? The bit I want to focus on is “you need the network effect to kick in and make the investment worth it.”

This applies not only to videoconferencing, but pretty much any kind of enterprise collaborative technology. We see a natural emergent network effect at play on the Web when consumers (and also small business users) start to use a particular collaborative or social tool, but in most large organisations of course access to new technology is strictly controlled. In those environments the temptation when introducing any new technology is to step carefully, check the likely return on investment and maybe run a few pilots.

But the results of this approach will never tell the real story of collaborative and social tools. You will never see the true benefits and value until that technology is made available to everyone in the organisation. Unfortunately what we’ve typically seen with collaborative technologies is quite the opposite – restricted deployments, consumption based charge back systems and as a result little support for users to help them integrate them into everyday work practices.

A good example in Australia where someone did approach this the right way was a government organisation. They had a set of meeting rooms in each office equipped with videoconferencing facilities – booking a videoconference was as easy as booking a meeting room and as a result the system was heavily used. User support could have been better in terms of improving the meeting experience, but they had at least achieved that important first step of critical mass.