Salesforce.com: Understanding the 'social enterprise', part 1

Salesforce.com has established a company strategy based on the concept of social enterprise. This post explores the context of what this means.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

This is Part One of a two-part series, explaining salesforce.com's social enterprise strategy.

Be sure also to read Part Two, which "decodes" salesforce.com's recent announcements and places the company's enterprise plans into context and perspective.

Read also: Salesforce.com: Understanding the 'social enterprise', part 2

Approximately 45,000 people registered for salesforce.com's Dreamforce conference, held in San Francisco two weeks ago, making it the largest enterprise software conference in the world. The event's size draws attention to the growing importance of cloud computing and highlights Salesforce as an important participant in the enterprise software ecosystem.

The focus of Dreamforce 2011 was "social enterprise," making this a worthwhile topic for examination.

One broad strategic imperative guides salesforce.com's evolving strategy: the desire to become a much larger company; after reaching two billion dollars in annual revenue, Salesforce seeks much greater size and scale.

Salesforce.com's CEO, Marc Benioff, aligned the company around Chatter back in 2009. At that time, Benioff recognized that "cracking the code" of improved collaboration could yield tremendous benefit to almost every business process in an organization.

Since many processes involve multiple departments, building the company around collaboration offers salesforce.com a means to engage enterprise customers across many departments, lines of business, and so on. Chatter is critically important to salesforce because it holds the potential to establish a broad enterprise footprint; after all, collaboration is everywhere.

Collaboration is a fundamental part of social computing in the enterprise. Products like Chatter, Yammer, Jive, Tibbr, and Streamwork, to name but a few, all try to improve enterprise-wide communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing.

Read also: CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

Social enterprise. During his Dreamforce keynote speech, Benioff explained that a simple question inspired the creation of Chatter: "Why do I know more about my Facebook friends than about my own family members?" Chatter is salesforce.com's attempt to address this question in an enterprise context.

For salesforce.com, the social enterprise describes end-to-end computing services in a strategy that explicitly recognizes the importance of human communication and collaboration in enterprise business processes.

Applying such consumer thinking to the enterprise gets to the heart of important business questions, for example:

  • How can I learn more about my customers -- their likes, dislikes, sources of business pain, levers for efficiency, and so on?
  • How I can better enable my colleagues and organization to achieve their goals -- what do they need and how can I help?
  • How can all these folks help me do a better job?

Each of these basic issues is related to communication and information sharing which are backbones of collaboration.

Since this blog covers IT failures, I must also emphasize that poor communication and collaboration are the most significant underlying cause of bad IT projects. Look to collaboration issues when enterprise implementations are late, over-budget, or do not deliver expected value.

It is important to be aware that salesforce.com did not invent enterprise collaboration as a concept, category, or set of products. Although the company could be accused of taking established ideas from the market rather than innovating, Salesforce has developed new ideas, such as data-to-data collaboration, an important aspect of Chatter.

Regarding the innovation issue, veteran analyst, Bruce Richardson, presents a reasonable perspective:

In my view, the company’s collective genius comes in delivering brand-new-to-the-market-software while simultaneously providing dramatic improvements on existing concepts.

The difference, though, is in Salesforce’s ability to seamlessly integrate/embed all of the new software into its existing platform. It then leverages its user experience to create strong, favorable buzz, stimulate global demand, and execute on a broad scale.

Salesforce.com's social enterprise strategy builds on established ideas embodied in other company's products. However, salesforce.com's size and level of investment brings unique attention to social computing and will be an important step in encouraging mainstream enterprise adoption of products in this category.

On a related note, I made the following comments when Salesforce first discussed Chatter in public:

Salesforce.com's flamboyant announcement of Chatter has catapulted social computing to the forefront of discussion among enterprise thought leaders.

While some may disagree with this assertion, we should not underestimate the market impact of salesforce.com's investment in developing and promoting enterprise collaboration enabled by cloud-based social computing. A significant percentage of the company's developers work on Chatter and Dreamforce itself is evidence of salesforce.com' marketing commitment.

On a somewhat tangential note, I like the term social enterprise to describe the convergence of consumer social computing and large-scale enterprise technology. In fact, I used that term in 2009 to describe the launch of  Chatter.

Read also: The 'social enterprise' comes of age

We should be aware that not everyone believes collaboration is a great enterprise opportunity. Enterprise analyst, David Dobrin, explains why he is skeptical:

"Enterprise social" is a lot more than activity streams; in fact, it's a whole lot of heterogeneous stuff lumped into a big pile, so it can be given a label by analysts who need to have magic quadrants.  In reality, there is no "enterprise social" opportunity; there are just opportunities in all the various different micro-areas that got lumped under that label.  For a very long time, alas, we're going to have Jive and Sharepoint and Webex and who knows what else.

As for the "enterprise readiness" of Salesforce's activity stream, I have about 20 serious criticisms of Chatter (all of them long since expressed to Salesforce), but not enterprise ready isn't one of them, because again, I don't know what that means. The main thing, I think, for activity streams, is to make them so interesting and useful that people actually pay attention to them.

If people would make it easier for me to assemble and filter the activity streams that I'm interested in so that I could get more of the good stuff from more of them, I think they will succeed at this part of enterprise social and they will end up defining "enterprise ready."

It is interesting that even a skeptic like Dobrin seems to desire collaboration tools, but he seeks greater definition around a category that currently seems too amorphous.


Only time and market maturity will let us see whether salesforce.com vision is meaningful and can deliver the growth opportunities that the company seeks.

In Part Two we examine salesforce.com's enterprise strategy and explain the social enterprise "operating system."

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