My colleague David Norfolk and I recently drafted an explanatory page about enterprise social networking to appear on the Bloor Web site. I thought you might like to see it in its present form. (The expression, "Social Collaboration", is one of Bloor's devising.)
Social Collaboration: what it is and what it does
A social business purposely uses computer-mediated networks of people to help create business results. The greatest value comes when these networks take on a life and culture of their own, producing ‘social collaboration’. The Bloor spotlight, Social Networking for Business, explores this in detail.
Social networks are typically self-defining, with voluntary membership. Members use the network to:
- Communicate and collaborate with other members and other teams
- Publish information on the network, perhaps making it available to outside parties
- Find (and re-publish) information available on the enterprise’s network or outside it.
Most of these activities are discretionary – an organization cannot compel its employees to form online communities. These emerge from the willing use of collaboration systems that embody shared knowledge and values. They are communities of trust.
Organizations increasingly use public social networks (also known as social media) to communicate with customers, trading partners and other external stakeholders. Much of this collaboration is discretionary, too.
Combining internal and external collaboration networks allows the greatest creation and exchange of ideas and knowledge.
Who should care and why?
Organizations typically use social networks to:
- Aid employee learning and to capture knowledge. Field intelligence becomes part of the corporate memory. New employees get up to speed faster and more reliably. All employees have access to corporate knowledge and can add to it.
- Build employee or partner communities. By allowing people a freer voice, social networking encourages communities of interest to develop, even within dispersed teams. These can lead to innovations in product design, delivery, marketing or support. Improvements in internal processes are another frequent result.
- Conduct individualised product or market research. Again, direct engagement is the key, with the aim of gaining greater insight into customers’ needs, wants and dissatisfactions. Customers can make suggestions for product and service improvements.
- Get better access to existing knowledge and expertise. Individuals and groups can find out quickly who knows what or who can do what, typically outside their ‘silos’. The network then helps those people collaborate. Project staffing becomes easier and more precise.
- Gain or intensify closeness to customers (‘customer intimacy’) by directly engaging with them on-line. One objective is to increase brand awareness. Another is to turn customers into advocates for the company and its products or services.
- Improve project management. By allowing informal communication about and around formal project management tools, participants can foresee potential problems and find mutually acceptable solutions. Projects get completed faster.
- Provide a central hub for information and ideas. These can be about regulations and legislation, patents, materials, processes, products, markets, market and revenue opportunities, customers, team activities, progress on projects and anything related. Tailoring the supply to the individuals’ needs is crucial.
- Strengthen product support. Direct communication with customers and users can improve their feelings towards the company and its products or services. Gaining greater and more accurate insight into their difficulties can feed back into product or service development.
These objectives are just a sample. Some focus outside the organization and some inside it. Depending on its choice of software, an organization can sometimes use the same system in both environments.
The overall aims are to improve an organization’s responsiveness, capability and performance. IBM, itself a successful social business, says such a business is engaged, nimble and transparent.
Achieving these qualities is neither quick nor easy. Expecting a countable return on investment (ROI), especially early, handicaps any social networking programme.
Emerging trends: what are the current key social collaboration features?
Enterprise social networking has been in active existence for fewer than five years and the market is therefore splintered and in flux. Customers are still working out what they want. Suppliers are still working out what to deliver and how. Mergers and take-overs are the norm.
The major trends are:
- Analysis of traffic becoming increasingly important. Quantitative and textual analysis of network conversations can yield valuable information to product developers, marketers, support operations and planners.
- App markets becoming expected. Customers increasingly want to be able easily to incorporate features and tools from third parties or from their own developers.
- Mobile working becoming expected. Customers increasingly want users to be able to connect to social networks via mobile telephones and tablets, including their own. The implications for system reliability and data confidentiality have yet to be fully understood.
- Social networks becoming better at integrating with line-of business systems. The aim is to link productively with systems of record and systems of action, such as ERP, BPM, CRM and supply chain. The danger is that the people who design and manage those systems will want social networks to behave like line-of-business systems.
- Suppliers adding more features to their products. This can sometimes be at the expense of lightness and ease of adoption. ‘Creeping featuritis’ afflicts all software market sectors.
- Suppliers adopting networked delivery as well as or rather than on-premise licensing. SaaS (software as a service) is common in this market but not universal.
Vendor landscape changes
IBM is a major supplier to the social systems market and is notable for publicly taking its own medicine (see above). It offers hosted and SaaS systems.
Microsoft is ostensibly another major supplier but its main offering, SharePoint, has few native social features. There is therefore a strong market in other systems, such as from Huddle and Newsgator, that integrate with it to remedy that lack.
Microsoft’s recent purchase of Yammer, which was the leading SaaS offering, introduces another and different architecture to its product range. How it and SharePoint will converge, if they do, has yet to become clear. SharePoint itself is available hosted and SaaS.
Jive is the largest specialist supplier of social networking systems, which run on the customer’s servers. The company is still not in profit despite increasing its income substantially, so its continued independent existence is in doubt.
Medium-to-large software makers with significant social offerings include Broadvision (with ClearVale), Cisco (with WebEx Social, formerly Quad), OpenText (Social Communities), Salesforce.com (Chatter), SAP (Streamwork), TIBCO (Tibbr) and VMware (SocialCast).
Smaller companies offering social networking include Atlassian, Blue Kiwi, IGLOO, Liferay, Lithium Technologies, Moxie, Mzinga, Saba, Socialtext, Telligent, ThoughtFarmer and Traction TeamPage.