The Business of Being Social

With IBM, Microsoft and Oracle jumping into the game, social-networking technologies are helping drive Enterprise 2.0.

Not that long ago, the phrase "social networking" in the enterprise sounded like a misnomer, if not a colossal waste of time. After all, what could Facebook and its ilk do to enhance business processes or increase productivity within large corporate accounts?

As it turns out, social-networking software has found a place for itself in the enterprise. But instead of IT spearheading its adoption, it has been the rank-and-file workers who have discovered the efficacy of using the technology to easily make connections and collaborate, along with pulling their Web 2.0 tools into the workplace. In doing so, they've created the Enterprise 2.0 market and demonstrated to IT and their managers that these consumer-based products have the capacity to increase and enhance business productivity and functionality.

"This is a market that was started by small companies looking to provide consumers with social networking, wikis and blogs," says Mark Levitt, vice president for collaboration and Enterprise 2.0 strategies at IDC, a global research and advisory firm. "Often they were not revenue-based and not considered an enterprise-ready set of tools. But they were brought into the enterprise by individuals who saw the value of using these tools in the same way that they brought IM and cell phones into the workplace."

In the process, Enterprise 2.0 has evolved, and a market that was initially populated only by small, feisty companies developing consumer-based products now sees itself becoming increasingly crowded by ever-bigger players developing Web 2.0 products solely for enterprise use. While the market now has new credibility -- with the likes of IBM Corp., Microsoft, Oracle Corp. and Google Inc. competing against each other with a variety of collaboration and networking tools -- the strategies of these companies vary and their ultimate success will largely define the future of Enterprise 2.0.

Tool Evolution
As Levitt points out, we're still in the early stages of Enterprise 2.0 tools, and each of those tools can stand on its own: blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, mashups and social networking. "Enterprise 2.0 has become a checklist of features within broader solutions, but those broader solutions might not be so easy to use. So people will just go out and get something that's easy and relevant to use," explains Levitt.

Many companies are still holding off on committing to a complete solution, at least for now. They may have small, tactical Web 2.0 deployments within a group or a department. "The user doesn't want to hear about upgrades," adds Levitt. "They want the tool today."

Employees are still turning to individual products from companies like Socialtext, MindTouch Inc., Near-Time Inc., GroupSwim and blueKiwi Software Ltd. There are also basic products like PBwiki that are free.

Google has its Apps and a new Google Moderator, and it recently launched a wiki engine. But according to Nikos Drakos, research director for the social software team at analyst firm Gartner Inc., it's not a very comprehensive approach as an enterprise solution. Over the next few years, a lot of the functional capabilities of social software will be available to corporate users, many observers believe. Still, integration will be central to its success, particularly where the IT department is concerned.

Oracle, for instance, has recently responded to this need with its launch of a new collaboration suite, Beehive, built on the Oracle platform. The product provides a range of collaboration services, including conferencing and team workspaces, which can be deployed either on premises or in the cloud through Oracle on Demand.

Need for Speed
The underlying drivers for Enterprise 2.0 are becoming more and more obvious: "People need to get work done faster, to find information faster, to find people faster-and without a social network, that's difficult," Levitt says. "Most companies see these as features they need to build into their existing products."

Christian Finn, Microsoft's director of collaboration in social computing in the SharePoint Product Management Group, certainly sees it that way. "As we look at the market, the question is, 'Are users going to buy a separate product to get these capabilities, or will they come to expect that their Office experience or SharePoint experience should have these things built in?' We think the latter. They won't treat wikis and blogs as totally separate from Office documents or visiting other Web sites, and they'll want [them] built in. That's the strategy we've invested in so far with SharePoint, and you'll see us in successive versions continue to add to our capabilities there," he says.

Consequently, Microsoft has been rolling Web 2.0 into existing products, which it started slowly doing with SharePoint. It's only more recently that the software giant has begun to pile a broader range of Web 2.0 features into SharePoint.

"Until 2008, the value proposition of SharePoint was more about structured collaboration," Drakos explains. "It could support formal teams, share documents and integrate with teams. There wasn't a lot of talk of using SharePoint for self-directed collaboration. But that changed this year."

According to Drakos, the full SharePoint product now includes all the Web 2.0 necessities like blogs and wikis. MySite, a personal space that provides individuals with a central location to manage and store documents, content, links and contacts, has actually been part of SharePoint since 2003. It functions as sort of an internal Facebook.

Finn believes that users want the Facebook-style experience but that companies want it to happen inside the firewall and on the company's own proprietary network. "I don't want to encourage people to create Facebook profiles through which they might share confidential information. I want that network to happen, but happen inside the firewall. So I want a tool like SharePoint that enables me to do it," he says.

Drakos notes that SharePoint is weak in the "bottom-up" organization of social-networking information -- the tagging and bookmarking of information that helps people make connections within an organization. "It's difficult to capture this information internally," notes Drakos. "Referral management is built into some systems, but it needs rich information put in," he adds.

SharePoint's MySite lets users put in all their information but doesn't tag how it's used. "Users will more likely get value because they use the system to do work, and others will become aware of what they're doing," says Drakos.

Finn points to Microsoft's recent acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer, a search company that has developed tools for doing social-networking analysis by mining data based on social networks and users' activities, and has created some Web parts for SharePoint. Finn says that a user can, for example, use the Fast search engine to look at the blogs on a network and analyze who might be getting mentioned and what the tenor of those mentions are.

"One of the things we think will happen over time, both internally and externally, is that as people get more comfortable in Web expressions like creating blogs and wiki posts and as they get profiles that are published publicly, you'll see a lot of analysis done on the kinds of interactions and opinions they're sharing. That's going to be a rich area to understand," Finn adds.

Big Blue Steps In
IBM acknowledges this future and has been experimenting internally with its own enterprise social-bookmarking tool, called Dogear. The company's Lotus division has already delivered a dedicated social-networking product, called Lotus Connections, and has integrated Connections with SameTime, a unified communications and collaboration tool.

"This was from a major vendor with enterprise-scale liability and integration," says Levitt, referring to the Lotus products. "The IT guys want that, and users also want a singular interface with lots of different capabilities. IBM knew how large corporations would use these tools. Other large companies responded by rejecting the idea that a company wanted another separate solution."

IBM's maverick approach and its commitment to Enterprise 2.0 are perhaps best exemplified by the recent launch of the IBM Social Software Center in Cambridge, Mass. The center will enable researchers and product developers from both inside and outside the company to collaborate and explore new business applications of Web 2.0 technologies.

According to Irene Greif, director of the center and an IBM fellow who heads up the company's Collaborative User Experience Group, Web 2.0 applications are doing now what the "knowledge-management people" were trying to do for decades. "They were wringing their hands about how to get data off people's servers," she says. "Now information is flying off."

The center is focused on social software and on the ways it can work in business. "We need people to use prototypes so we can see how they work," says Greif. "We can't let down the user community if a product doesn't make it." She adds that not all Web 2.0 applications developed by IBM will be in the Connections package. "Some things just aren't a good fit for Lotus," she says.

The center will help get data out of a product and observe how it's being used. "We are coming to realize that a company that's concerned about deployment will need access to research and usage data," Greif says.

IBM recently moved into the cloud with its launch of Bluehouse, a Software as a Service product that offers online social-networking and collaboration services for business. The product acknowledges the ongoing interest of many companies that want to avoid deployment and maintenance costs of in-house software.

Greif notes that IBM is interested in capitalizing on the viral nature of social networking and how this is taken up within the enterprise. She sees tagging as a crucial element within Enterprise 2.0 because of the information it can provide to a company. "People like tagging because it will create taxonomy, a hierarchical way of organizing terms of a company," she says. "The tags that are used a lot rise to the top, but it's not a rigid list; it's always changing."

The Future of Enterprise 2.0
Greif says that the IBM Social Software Center is also experimenting with external collaboration, an area she believes companies will eventually consider. Bluehouse has a feature that allows the small businesses that subscribe to it to be able to collaborate with other small businesses.

"IBM is trying to make it easier to have a presence outside the company on Facebook or Beehive. People want to build and maintain relationships both outside and inside the company. We're building something that can help individuals be visible outside. People want their assets to be known," she says.

Finn agrees that external collaboration is the future of Enterprise 2.0, but says that it's going to take a while to get there. "That's going to be a key area in the future, but right now it's very underdeveloped," he says. "What happens is [that] the salesperson creates an account on Facebook, looks for people from their customers who are also on Facebook, then tries to navigate from there. But there's no federation between your internal SharePoint profile and your external Facebook or LinkedIn profile." Well, at least not right now.

As Greif says, "Companies need to get more comfortable with the idea that they don't own their [employees]. They want people to team up with business partners and alumni, and to cut across different departments. Enterprise 2.0 means flexible technology that companies can mold to their uses."

About the Author

Naomi Grossman operates her own writing and Web-content consulting firm.


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