Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Are Collaboration Tools Part of the IT Infrastructure or Part of the Application Portfolio?

By Dennis D. McDonald

I was interviewed yesterday by a Forrester Research staff member about how CIO’s (Chief Information Officers) approach the implementation of collaboration tools. We talked about the usual adoption issues related to “web 2.0” applications within the enterprise — culture, bottom-up vs. top-down, generational and demographic differences, security, etc. etc.

One  topic that struck me was the question of how to classify and justify technologies when it’s not immediately clear whether we’re dealing with an application or a piece of infrastructure.

Collaboration tool as application

If we’re talking about using a collaboration tool in connection with a specific business process we might be able to justify the investment in the technology and its associated business process changes based on improved contributions made to the business objectives that are being supported.  This sounds like a “business application” to me.

Even though in The Justification of Enterprise Web 2.0 Project Expenditures I’ve written how “web 2.0” technologies change the traditional definitions used in such justification exercises, the fact remains that a software application such as a collaboration tool can be “applied” to an activity or process in order to facilitate or improve how that process is performed. Taking that view, at least some of the justification should be based on how well the application improves the business processes it’s supposed to be supporting.

Collaboration tool as infrastructure

If the collaboration tool or set of tools is considered to be part of “infrastructure,” an assumption could be made that the benefits are spread across all types of business processes or operational areas and can’t be reasonably linked to only one or two. Examples of infrastructure tools and their associated expenses are email, server farms that support all business areas, and local area networks. One could engage in exercises to “allocate” portions of infrastructure costs and benefits to  individual processes that are supported by the infrastructure, but that can be a daunting exercise if it hasn’t been done before and it might have few benefits if not carried out in a convincing and transparent fashion.


A case can be made that using social media and social networking tools to improve collaboration within the enterprise has elements of both applications and infrastructure. Especially when introduced by a targeted workgroup or small team, they share the characteristics of business applications and could be treated as such.

Still, were I to put on a CIO’s hat, I would want to ensure that other collaborative applications down the road employed the same or a compatible platform so that benefits of information sharing and reduced training and support time can be maximized. I’d also be looking into the future and viewing investments on collaboration technologies as investments that will ultimately benefit all business processes, not just early adopters and those involved in the initial stages of viral processes.

  • Click here for a list of other blog posts related to “collaboration.” 


Is It Too Late to Reverse the Fragmentation of the Web?

New Media Tools and Market Research Independence