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With new enterprise collaboration platforms, 'social' means business

Forget about pushing people to use wikis and blogs. The rush is on to build enterprise collaboration platforms that pull social networking into every workstation.

No matter what your company currently thinks about Facebook and Twitter -- and chances are very good it at least has discussed co-opting both for marketing purposes -- the social networking platforms are driving a fundamental change in the way enterprises will do their work in the near future. Now that Facebook has trained people to socialize online and Twitter has turned opinion into global "activity streams," the rush is on to develop enterprise collaboration platforms that add broad social networking capabilities to work processes.

From Cisco Systems Inc., IBM, Microsoft, Oracle Corp., SAP AG and Inc. to Enterprise 2.0 pioneers Socialtext Inc. and Jive Software Inc., vendors are scrambling to develop social media tools for the workplace, either by adding a "social layer" atop the spectrum of a worker's business applications or by embedding collaboration tools into business applications.

Those who follow the market compare the development of these enterprise collaboration platforms to the push in the early 1990s for the big enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that automated and brought transparency to back-office functions. Then as now, the world had been hit by a deep recession. In both instances, businesses needed to remain viable in tough economic conditions and to position themselves for a recovery.

In the early 1990s, companies … bet on technology to make their organizations fundamentally more efficient. I'm seeing very much the same dynamics today. It's just that the bet is being made on knowledge worker innovation.
Rob Koplowitzprincipal analyst, Forrester Research Inc.

"In the early 1990s, companies were looking at some basic business challenges around resource costs and labor costs, and they bet on technology to make their organizations fundamentally more efficient," said Rob Koplowitz, principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc., an IT consultancy based in Cambridge, Mass. "I'm seeing very much the same dynamics today. It's just that the bet is being made on knowledge worker innovation."

Instead of eliminating human action to increase business efficiency, the new enterprise collaboration platforms aim to foster innovation by pulling workers' knowledge -- from worlds away if necessary -- into the business process to resolve exceptions in automated work, solve business problems in real time and use their collective intelligence.

Enterprise collaboration asks, 'Who's there?'

A big driver in business's move to enterprise collaboration platforms is the role that identity now plays in social software, according to social software experts. And yes, Facebook has been a force in this. When personal interactions on the Web were largely anonymous, companies were not interested in incorporating social software.

"Enterprise environments don't want you to be anonymous," said Larry Cannell, senior analyst in the collaboration and content strategies service at Burton Group, a division of Gartner Inc.

A platform where people have lists of friends with whom they share interests or collaborate puts a face to online activity, Cannell said. "That is one of the big things that differentiates Facebook from earlier social software -- the fact that we know who you are."

The dynamic has changed on the employee side as well. Before Facebook, many workers resisted participating in such collaboration vehicles as wikis and blogs because they saw them as extra work, Cannell said. "They already knew how to share files or keep track of tasks: They emailed them or put them on the P drive." Email was instantly popular because it met a real need and people already knew the mail format. Having to shift to another application to interact with other workers was "a big thing."

"With Facebook, we have a new online interaction pattern that people recognize as useful and of value," Cannell said.

Tools such as FriendFeed and TweetDeck, which allow users to aggregate and filter social activity on a single interface, offer a paradigm for tracking activity in the various business applications workers attend to in a given day, Cannell said. ('s new Chatter does this for its customer relationship management application.) For example, a product engineer who's responsible for product projects in various stages of development might be zigzagging among a dozen applications during the day. "By having this work layer, for lack of a better description, imagine being able to keep track of what is going on in all these systems in an activity feed similar to a TweetDeck," he said. The work layer then is not another thing for employees to do during the day -- one more output -- but a tool that helps eliminate the daily extra steps they are already taking by pulling information to them.

Do you Knome now?

Indeed, the new networking platforms differ significantly from first-generation wikis, blogs, ideation tools and FAQ forums that are fixtures in many companies, experts stress.

"The first generation was, 'I am going to my social network platform, which is my personal site,' and on the other site is real work. What we are seeing is that over the next year or two, these are merging together," said K. Ananth Krishnan, chief technology officer responsible for research and development at Mumbai-based Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. (TCS).

Knome, the TCS enterprise collaboration platform that was developed in 2004 and is used internally for connecting the consultancy's IT global workforce of 174,000 people, is an example. "What we are moving toward is the ability to weave social networking grammar into actual business processes," Krishnan said.

The transition is not just internal. Companies across nearly all industries are asking TCS how they can translate their use of social networks into a more effective competitive strategy, Krishnan said. Early adopters, such as financial services, are integrating social tools into the workstation via social networking widgets that allow workers to network immediately, set up ad hoc conversations or tap into ideas to complete the task at hand. And they come with a certain demographic and even geographic profile.

"My perception is, they tend to have a bigger proportion of younger employees," Krishnan said. North America, India and Britain are inclined to adopt these technologies "a lot more readily."

Enterprise collaboration redefining competition?

CIOs are well positioned to play a major role in driving this new way to work.

CIOs who have spearheaded large ERP implementations, sometimes with blood, sweat and pink slips, are deeply familiar with crossfunctional systems aimed at breaking down corporate silos. That work is far more heavyweight than building a social layer, point out such people as Ross Mayfield, president and co-founder of Socialtext, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based maker of business social software. CIOs have always had to think about the connections between people, process and technology when implementing IT strategy.

"The difference is they haven't had people in their systems before, except as users," Mayfield said. "The opportunity is working across those silos of people, process and technology in a way that can be transformative."

It is readily understandable that companies might be eager to exploit social media for their competitive advantage in the marketplace. But what about the "divide and conquer" mentality typical of many managerial strategies, or the close guarding of information within corporate silos?

"What we see is that as companies deploy social software, people who hoard information are at a disadvantage [compared] to those who share," said Mayfield said.

One thing analysts and even vendors agree on: Social is a sexy, not to say overhyped story that every vendor out there from IBM and Microsoft to you-name-it is trying to sell you. Tomorrow on, we offer a bird's-eye view of who's out there, and discuss the things CIOs should consider in choosing one.

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

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