Project Management

Developing a business case for online collaboration tools

From the The Money Files Blog
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A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets, estimating and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts. Written by Elizabeth Harrin from GirlsGuideToPM.com.

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Categories: books, business case


This is an extract from the draft of the second edition of Social Media for Project Managers by Elizabeth Harrin and published by PMI. Consider it a sneak preview for when the book comes out!

The normal approach is to define your strategy, research what you need to do in order to achieve that (both in terms of cultural and non-technical changes and software/infrastructure investment) and then prepare a business case to secure the investment. When the business case has been approved you then go into more detail and fully scope the projects or programs required to deliver on that investment.

However, a full financial business case doesn’t always stack up for collaboration tools for many reasons including:

  • The difficulties of measuring intangible results like ‘better collaboration’
  • The time it takes to baseline today’s results to compare future performance
  • It’s hard to define exactly what return on investment would look like
  • The lack of detailed time recording to see whether improvements have been made in productivity and speed of access to experts.

In short, the intangibility and unpredictability of knowledge work makes it hard to quantify anything reliably. Project work by its nature is non-repetitive, and if you have deployed your collaboration tool at the beginning of a project you may not have sufficient experience with that team and on that project to estimate, for example, the length of time tasks are taking with any degree of accuracy. Without that baseline you cannot definitely say that your software has improved the delivery time for tasks. For that reason, many organisations choose not to measure efficiency in a quantitative manner. Instead, companies often rely on employee surveys that in turn rely on subjective responses around whether a tool has made it easier to work together. Make an educated guess based on anecdotal evidence and feedback from the project team.

To give another example, it is difficult to quantitatively measure the positive impact on enabling online communications. How much more useful are project workspaces than a phone call? Bloggers in the public online space often use the amount of comments and social shares received on a blog post as a measure of popularity, interest, engagement with their readers and so on. This is not a reliable measure in a workplace setting: a discussion post may have a couple of comments before you step in and facilitate a face-to-face meeting on the topic, or the commentators pick up the phone to each other to get to the bottom of the finer points. The amount of conversation going on is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of those conversations, so again this is a difficult thing to measure.

The inability to clearly define and measure what you want to achieve will make many project managers uncomfortable (and may force them to choose irrelevant or subjective measures for success). After all, the project charter should include enough detail about scope and acceptance criteria to ensure that the relevant people can sign off the project’s products as complete and fit for purpose. You wouldn’t embark on a project without knowing what ‘finished’ looks like, and knowing who would agree that the work has been completed to the required quality.

However, do you measure how well you wrote the Project Charter or how effective your quality reviews were? Probably not, outside a general feeling that it was a good, comprehensive document or that the meeting participants got what they needed from the review. Collaboration tools are a project support system much like email or conference calls – and would you measure the success of those on a monthly basis? Success criteria are useful, but they do not have to be statistically measurable. Consider the implementation of digital team tools as another option for your project management toolkit. You can measure it with the same judgment calls that you do for the other processes in your methodology.

Don’t struggle with a full financial business case unless you really need one to get your investment approved.

The alternative to a financial business case

If a full financial business case won’t stack up, or your leadership doesn’t require one, then prepare a short options appraisal instead. Review the solutions available to you, using any identified in your strategy document and any others that have come about as part of your general research into delivering the strategy. An options appraisal includes:

  • Pros and cons for each option
  • Financial investment for each option
  • Timescales for implementing each option
  • Resource implications for each option
  • A recommendation, stating which option you want to go for.

Present this to your decision makers and start the discussion to secure the investment in your collaboration tool.

Alternatively, consider asking for approval at this point only for the analysis phase or a small pilot. This would give you a mandate to go ahead and research the market and how the tools might benefit your teams, while not asking for a financial commitment at this point.


The second edition of Social Media for Project Managers by Elizabeth Harrin will be out next year.

Posted on: December 09, 2015 12:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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Good thoughts Elizabeth. I agree that developing a financial business case may not always be possible. At the same time, executives and sponsors love to see things in financial terms.

If one must to come up with a financial business case for collaboration tools, what options do you think exist? Can we somehow dig into the intangibles and find out the real impact that these will have on revenue/cost?

Great insightful post! Thank you!

Thanks for materialistic article..

Thanks for the post, nice info.

Collaboration is a working practice whereby individuals work together to a common purpose to achieve business benefit. Online Collaboration tools like webex, R-HUB web conferencing servers, gotomeeting, gomeetnow etc. enables individuals to work together to achieve a defined and common business purpose. Collaboration and communication go hand in hand.

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