CIO Matters

Business and social network apps belong together: Will they ever meet?

Two days into the E2 conference underway in Boston this week, I can tell you one thing: CIOs charged with or charged up about enterprise social tools still have their work cut out for them. The fundamental challenge lurks: Is it possible to translate the remarkably efficient and addictive features of consumer social platforms into secure yet flexible business platforms that help solve real business problems?

Linda Tucci

Linda Tucci

Maybe, but the market for merging social network apps and business apps is immature. And the ROI is elusive. For all the blather about social tools supplanting business automation as the new productivity driver, not many companies have really figured out how to do this (or if they have, they're not blabbing about it at conferences.)

What are we talking about when we talk about social collaboration tools for business anyway? Besides your vocal cords, that is. Is the phone a social collaboration tool? Your iPad? What about IM, email, wikis, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter? Google Apps, Google Hangouts, Googling? The big vendors are all dishing up social network apps and collaboration components (Microsoft by buying Yammer and Skype). Meanwhile the point solutions are alive and proliferating: Moxie, MangoApps, Mzinga, IGLOO and ThoughtFarmer, to name just some.

If there's any certainty in this volatile field, it's that CIOs need to figure out a way for social tools to play nice with business apps. Otherwise, it's pretty much guaranteed that employees will keep communicating in fragmented and ineffective ways. The potential productivity gains that would accrue from the marriage of social software and business apps won't be realized.

If there's any certainty in this volatile field, it's that CIOs need to figure out a way for social tools to play nice with business apps.

Of course, companies know this. Choosing a suitable social software mate, however, is easier said than done. Take Chatter, the social module for Salesforce.com's customer relationship management (CRM) product. Business subscribers can use Chatter to talk to other sales people, share documents, have discussions and so on. Chatter "is a disaster" from an enterprise architecture standpoint, according to social software expert Tony Byrne, a conference speaker and president of the vendor-independent analyst firm, Real Story Group. "It stores files in all sorts of different places, the security model is kind of wrong, it doesn't even have nested discussions -- it doesn't work nearly as well as Yammer and NewsGator," Byrne said. Yet, it's very popular. Why is that?

"There is a set of people in your company who live in [business app] Salesforce all day. That's what they do," he said. Chatter is right there for them, "within the flow of work," he said. So, while Chatter may not work for the CIO from an enterprise architecture standpoint, it's the preferred social tool hands down from a user standpoint.

Social software works best when it is incorporated into the flow of work -- or as people at this conference are fond of saying, when it is "fit for purpose." That requires first understanding how your business colleagues get their work done and second, where the "social layer" should be embedded in the work process. Having gone through the rigors of observing workers in their digital habitats, CIOs will find themselves on treacherous terrain once again when they get around to vetting social network app vendors.

For starters, social networking and collaboration up until recently have tended to be different tools. That is changing as social network products add collaboration features (e.g., Jive) and vice versa (e.g., SharePoint layered with NewsGator). It's still a tough call whether to take the product or the platform route. Microsoft markets SharePoint as a product, for example, Byrne said, but it is really a platform; that is, it is "feature-complete," but requires internal skills to customize and manage and derive business value from it. Products, on the other hand, can deliver quick wins. The downside is they are what they are, not very customizable, or scalable and often lacking enterprise controls, from security and access controls to backup to "internationalization." Many products are English-only, not very useful for a global deployment.

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Most important, social collaboration software should be able to tie into all those business applications, like Salesforce, that employees use to get their jobs done. Or, it should be able to wrap around those applications. Tibbr, an application and integration platform from TIBCO Software Inc., allows for that, but it requires engineering and is expensive to deploy, Byrne said. "Sticky challenges" remain in layering social into business apps. His bottom line: CIOs charged with socializing the workforce should expect to extend, supplement and or complement their existing social software and collaboration tools.

That's not surprising. After all, the goal is to take two irreconcilable forces of software -- the secure, highly flexible business application and the insecure, highly regimented, social interaction tool -- and get the best of both worlds in one platform. Is this going to happen? You bet, but don't ask me how.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

This was first published in June 2013

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