Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

Summary: For many, the giant size of today's social software suites is too much, while the simple functional focus of individual social apps isn't enough. How can enterprises best cope with this bloat vs. refinement divide? The answer partially lies in how control of IT software selection and acquisition is going to change over the next half decade.

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Keep in mind that one person's bloat is another person's requested feature, yet good emergent platforms don't need many new features. As social software becomes increasingly common in the enterprise, one of the most frequently asked questions these days is which are the best social platforms to use. In general, enterprises like to invest in software that will see successful adoption, have vendors that will be around to support them, and will evolve in a direction that is aligned with where they're going as well. Somewhat surprisingly, this often pares the list down to a fairly small list of candidates given the large number of enterprise-class social platforms available today.

In my survey last year of top Enterprise 2.0 platforms, I found over 70+ social products that had business utility across a wide spectrum of functionality. Just last week, Gartner issued their 2010 enterprise social software Magic Quadrant (read a good analysis of it by Read/Write Web's Klint Finley) that listed old familiar faces and newer entrants while dropping many players. Whichever list you use, that's a lot of software to evaluate in a clearly shifting and evolving landscape.

What's the organizing principle?

Good technology products often spawn close followings and the social software space is no exception, though it's mostly reserved for open source offerings like Drupal or microblogging apps like Yammer or SocialCast. There is also the ever-present shadow of mindshare, with the top products such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Lotus Connections, and Jive Social Business Software usually foremost in mind for large businesses at the moment.

Categorizing Enterprise Social Software: Suites, Portals, Apps, and Software

Yet there's an inescapable feeling that unlike consumer social platforms, which have seen a tsunami of growth such that they virtually dominate the online world today, the enterprise social software industry hasn't quite found -- for lack of a better word -- its mojo in quite the same way. One of the things that seems to be missing is an understanding of what the center of focus should be.

Should we be adding new social apps to the workplace, such as social networks, microblogs, and wikis, or should we be making our existing enterprise applications more social (ala Salesforce Chatter)? Or both? How about our intranet portals, how do we reconcile social with them? Or perhaps most importantly, what business problem are we trying to solve? The answers to these questions will help determine what software solutions we look at.

Big platforms or simple apps? Do we have to choose one?

If there seems to be a dividing axis in enterprise social software, it seems to separate applications that focus on doing something particularly well, like dedicated wiki or microblogging tools, from those that try to provide an all-encompassing social capability, the so-called enterprise social suites. This is the "bloat" versus refinement of this post's title. Good examples of the former are Atlassian's Confluence and Yammer, while Drupal and SocialText are typical exemplars of the latter (and see my breakdown of SharePoint to get a sense of its size). Keep in mind though that one person's "bloat" is another person's requested feature, yet good emergent platforms don't need many new features added centrally.

On their face, the sheer size and complexity of some enterprise social suites, such as Microsoft SharePoint 2010 or the forthcoming Lotus Connections 3, sometimes seems to in opposition with the reason that social software works so well. In contrast, the social platforms that are prevalent in the consumer world seem to give us the power to do so much by doing so very little. It's their incredibly simple usage models which have fostered their utility and adoption. They have given everybody fundamental access to the power laws of large networks.

It's at this point I should say that's it's not me saying this, it's the many people I encounter who are trying to wrap their minds around what these ambitious (and yes, largely capable) platforms can do for them and their businesses. The point here is that to the extent that the complexity of enterprise social software obscures or blocks the core nature of social computing, it limits usability, adoption, and flexibility, and therefore value.

However, I am also not here to bury social software suites. Quite the contrary. For many of us they are an inevitable feature of the our future workplaces as the central home of enterprise social activity. Part of this is because they are necessary as a way of dealing with the complexity and legacy aspects of today's enterprise environments. They are also often very good at what they do and their providers will be around for a very long time. They are necessary perhaps, but almost certainly not sufficient. Most enterprises will need more local specialization, both in social functionality as well as edge social applications that are pre-customized to their unique type of task or role (i.e. a social performance review apps, social supply chains, social ERP, etc.)

Make selection easy by phasing and decentralization

There are at two major forces at work that makes it less likely that most organizations will avoid a more complex social software adoption scenario than we might like:

First, there is the increasing decentralization of IT, driven by the consumerization of technology, viral self-service, the rise of shadow IT, SaaS/cloud computing, and a confluence of related factors (see my discussion of CoIT for more details. The key take away from this is that end-users are realizing that there is often a better tool for the job and that it's very easy and often quite inexpensive to acquire and use. It is now rare that I encounter a large enterprise that doesn't have at least 4-5 major social software tools being used in various parts of the organization. The reality is there is no one best tool for the job and mature social software strategies will have a mix of applications across the spectrum (social collaboration, social search, social analytics, and so on) with clear guidance backed by effective, constructive governance.

Second, the social software world is rapidly evolving still. We are still discovering how social applications work best "in the wild" and many lessons are continuing to come in. This has implications for the much slower moving cycle of enterprise social software progression, which has often modeled itself after the patterns that have worked so well online, even if it's not a wholesale translation. One of the top debates: Whether the outside-in model of social apps connected by APIs (ala Twitter and its open API-powered 3rd party apps) or inside-out container models like the increasingly enterprise-friendly OpenSocial are both contenders for how we'll truly plug into the social capabilities of the our enterprises. We don't know how it's going to turn out and the both the suites and the apps have placed bets on either side.

Related: Ten emerging Enterprise 2.0 technologies to watch.

In other words it's early days yet and I currently advise that enterprises be ready for (at least) a two phase approach to adoption of social software. Adopting social isn't optional any more, but making a final decision on the future of social platforms isn't viable either. The point is that it's not a question of social suites or social apps, it's both and your favored platforms and tools will change over time more rapidly than the enterprise apps of the past and in ways you weren't expecting (see app stores for a new model for enterprise software acquisition, social and otherwise.) Plan for change, be ready to learn from everyone's successes (join the 2.0 Adoption Council if you're a large company), and enable social computing in your organization wherever and however it makes the most sense.

What's your approach to enterprise social software adoption and why? Please put your comments in Talkback below.

Topics: Apps, Collaboration, Enterprise Software, IBM, Enterprise 2.0

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12 comments
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  • Social layer vs. social sprinkles

    I've been struggling less about the point social solutions vs. the social platforms and more about how to reconcile the vertically focused functional applications with social sprinkled in with the social platforms. The top social platforms provide the point social solutions in an integrated format along with the ability to integrate further into other enterprise applications. In my mind, the confusing part for the user will be how the features that have been added into their other, suddenly social applications reconcile with the social platform. I interpret this to be the area in the lower left of quadrant of your diagram. In my model, I've tagged portals as a specific vertical, not that much different than another business tool in this puzzle.
    My model has a horizontal layer of social atop the vertical applications with social sprinkled into them. The social layer will need to bring in the social feeds from the verticals to create a continuum. Otherwise, disconnected islands will develop which eats away at the goal of connecting silos.
    You spend a lot more time living this domain than I do so I may not be considering some nuances that you see. I'm happy to see some thinking out loud on this topic. The model I've outlined is a result of struggling to make sense of the domain represented by your diagram in order to devise a strategy. I see similar concepts in both.
    ENadrotowicz
  • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

    One wonders if Hinchcliffe really appreciates the modular architecture of Drupal when he cites it as an exemplar of bloat. It is designed to be adaptable to a wide range of needs and to minimize the burden with some relation to the size of the needs. That said, if he wanted to use the word sprawl, I might go for that... it can be a bit intimidating sizing up all one's options and the differing avenues of approach.
    ks2problema
  • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

    I'm the Director of Product Strategy at BroadVision, and throughout the last decade, the question of "integrated suite vs point solutions" has been a constant presence for us. We have always passionately believed that "integrated suite" is the best approach, first with our eCommerce and Portal solutions, and now with <a href="http://www.clearvale.com">Clearvale</a>, our enterprise social networking suite.<br><br>I do understand the appeal of the so-called "best of breed" approach, taking a variety of point solutions and integrating them together. It gives companies the perception they have the best of every world. So in the Enterprise 2.0 world, that might mean taking Yammer's microblogging, Atlassian's Wiki, box.net's document sharing, and integrating them all together. But I believe the reality is that the result is far less than the sum of the parts. The integration is costly to perform and maintain, and the user experience is compromised, because standards to allow the point solutions to work together seamlessly simply don't exist.<br><br>A suite, on the other hand, is more than the sum of it's parts. Maybe it doesn't have the top-rated solution for each functional point, but it does result in a collection of features which are designed to work together. A few functional compromises results in a better overall experience.<br><br>A suite only becomes bloatware when it starts including features that only appeal to a minority of users. iTunes is problem the best example of this at the moment. A lot of users just want a good music player, separate from the management of iOS devices, apps, books, etc. Of course the challenge is knowing where to draw the line. If you have an iPad and an iPhone, buy your music and books from the iTunes store, you might like having everything all in one app. <br><br>In the Enterprise 2.0 world, I think the biggest question this leads to is whether the social functionality and intranet should form part of the same suite. Intellectually, yes, it probably should. But from a practical point of view that means either discarding the investment you've made in your intranet in favour of a new social intranet, or it means taking the social functionality provided by your existing intranet. Neither is appealing, although I do understand that Microsoft, Lotus. etc might want to push people towards the latter. But these intranets are fundamentally content- and process-centric, whereas social suites need to be people-centric. So merely extending your intranet compromises your social implementation.<br><br>So I don't think the question should be suite vs point solutions. I don't believe the point solutions we see today will continue to exist in isolation; they will either be expanded (e.g. Yammer) or acquired into a large suite. The real question is which functionality belongs in a social suite, and which belongs in other systems.
    Richard Hughes
  • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

    Dion, I would love to hear more about why you think Lotus Connections 3 is so complex? I looked at your complex slide on MOSS: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/hinchcliffe/sharepoint-and-enterprise-20-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/280 and Lotus Connections doesn't look anything like that. As a user of the product, I find the product incredibly easy to use, especially because it integrates directly into my day to day life. For example, I could use it from Windows Explorer, MS Office, MS Outlook, BlackBerry, iPhone, etc with the free plugins available through http://catalog.lotus.com .

    To answer your question: "Should we be adding new social apps to the workplace, such as social networks, microblogs, and wikis, or should we be making our existing enterprise applications more social?" I'm a big fan of the social everywhere strategy (i.e. make existing enterprise applications more social). I think it's the best way to drive adoption and break down silos. I fear that destination sites, may seem like too much work for the non-techie employee and it would discourage him from sharing.

    Thanks for your arduous work on this blog Dion.
    lbenitez
    • I agree

      @lbenitez Employees at my company suffer from application fatigue. When one's daily work is spread across eight or nine separate software systems, additional functionality gets lost behind use complexity. As we shop for an E2.0 platform we demand it replace the functionality of at least two and preferably three, current applications. The advantage of "all-encompassing social capability" is that it allows us to operate within the finite capacity for users to span their jobs across multiple platforms.
      mrhebrides
  • Bloat is a problem

    Bloat is a problem, and the larger solutions are certainly complex. In many cases it falls on IT to sort out that complexity; they pick and choose features and customize the product to keep it manageable for the day-to-day users. However, that customization causes increased risk, delayed launch dates, and higher upfront investment. Everyone has a pet solution that they think is perfect, but at the end of the day there are always trade-offs.
    I personally work at IGLOO Software, and I'm honestly surprised we weren't mentioned in this article. We're a SaaS solution with an integrated suite of apps like wikis, forums, blogs, and content management... so you can avoid the bloat of Sharepoint without resigning to using a jungle of specialized apps. We were the biggest mover on the Gartner Magic Quadrant this year, and are definitely worth a look.
    novelploy
  • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

    Both are bloated.
    james347
    • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

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    • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

      @james347

      One wonders if Hinchcliffe really appreciates the modular architecture of Drupal when he cites it as an exemplar of bloat. It is designed to be adaptable to a wide range of needs and to minimize the burden with some relation to the size of the needs. <a href=http://www.kayserimeskenemlak.com>kayseri emlak</a> said, if he wanted to use the word sprawl, I might go for that... it can be a bit intimidating sizing up all one's options and the differing avenues of approach.
      Kayseri Emlak
  • RE: Social suites vs. apps: The tension between bloat and refinement

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