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Salesforce VP: Social enterprise revolutionizing focus of cloud computing

Salesforce.com's head of platform research discusses the value of big data, the consumerization of IT, and how mobile devices should address collaboration concerns in 2012.

Talking about the social enterprise is changing the entire focus of cloud computing from just reorganizing IT to revolutionizing businesses, according to Peter Coffee, vice president and head of platform research at Salesforce.com.

Coffee recently spoke candidly with me about his predictions for what will be the major trends in enterprise technology in 2012 and how they will pan out.

Like many other companies, Coffee's remarks pointed toward the "SoCoMo" trifecta: social, cloud, and mobile. But it's not as simple as tossing these three categories out as examples -- it's about making sure that these three trends work together seamlessly while standing strong as their own pillars as well.

Here's Coffee's take on what we can expect to see more about in 2012:

On job demand: "All of the forecasts that I see indicate that gross measures of unemployment are really misleading when it comes to people with IT skills," Coffee argued, explaining that while unemployment teeters closer to 10 percent nationwide and even more in certain states, the rate is really closer to 2 percent when it comes to potential employees with IT skills.

First, Coffee pointed out that we've "got a cohort of boomers reaching retirement age, and those who can afford to very well may be deciding to do something else." Secondly, there are younger generations coming in with different but also valuable skill sets, such as knowledge of HTML5. Coffee said that this offers the opportunity for companies that recognize the "tremendous competitive value...in using these things effective and getting these things out into the marketplace."

One of those things would be apps, as Coffee remarked that it's interesting to see how quickly native apps for the iPad have already been turned over replaced by HTML5. Citing The Financial Times app as an example, Coffee said that the experience was great on the iPad already, but there was obviously a value to the FT to follow this route and that there is "no sense that they’ve compromised anything" with the strategy shift.

Coffee concluded on this front that the the only real way for any business to differentiate itself from competitors is by superior use of social technology, web applications and supply integration -- all of which depend on a strategic use of IT.

"That means that the people in the position to deliver those differentiations are going to be very much in demand," he added.

On mobile devices and collaboration: The big point that Coffee made concerning mobile devices is that a tablet is not just a sized-down laptop but rather something much different and revolutionary for business purposes. There are advantages to this form of technology that you simply can't get with a laptop.

Coffee acknowledged that there is so much processing power and display real estate in the case of a 10-inch tablet that with the power of HTML5, you could deliver a desktop-class experience on that mobile device. He added that is "arguably" where Microsoft wants to go with Windows 8.

But his counter to that is that delivering the desktop experience to a handheld device, even if it's feasible, is the wrong thing to do.

He contrasted two potential computing scenarios for an enterprise employee. At his or her desk, this person could be staring at three different desktop screens for the purpose of completing a single purpose (i.e. data analysis). But that person might not (and probably doesn't) want the same experience on a tablet.

"The person looking at a smartphone on the way in the lobby on the way into a meeting doesn't want a broad view of one thing. They want a quick snapshot of lots of things," he explained.

Coffee posited that the tablet should be recognized as a "window" into the organization. Mobile devices and collaboration go hand-in-hand here as Coffee explained that entire brain trust of an employee's organization, supply chain and partner ecosystem need to be readily accessible when heading into a meeting.

On the value of big data: Of course, part of the information provided in that tablet window to the company should cover some analytics from big data as well.

Basically, Coffee's view here is that the surging volume of external data will drive more companies to use cloud-based analytics platforms (like Salesforce-acquired Radian6) to encourage making better business decisions.

"It's relatively easy to find out what people are saying. It's harder to find out who’s saying and why it matters," Coffee posited, adding that if that data can't be correlated with factors such as geography, purchasing intentions, or related business opportunities, then it's just entertainment.

With the social enterprise, Coffee explained that turning big data from being entertainment into meaningful, operational, real-time guidance enables companies to move more quickly with more certainty. He continued that the social enterprise is also about doing "something today that customers didn't even realize they wanted until they saw it."

On consumerization of IT and the Enterprise: As for what many business and enterprise employees want, that might not necessarily align with IT department regulations. Yes, we're talking about the bring-your-own-device-to-work trend, which is only going to become more pertinent in the next year.

"My feeling is that you have to make what you want to happen the most likely and easiest to do. You can’t make water run up hill," Coffee said, acknowledging also that when it comes to data security, you have to make sure policies are the most secure and compliant as well.

Coffee asserted that most executives, IT managers, and other employees that are afraid of making the shift to the cloud and allowing personal devices on work networks often dream about a Mission Impossible-like nightmare in which there are always professional cyber criminal rings using extreme measures and quantum physics to break in and steal data.

That's just not reality, Coffee argued, citing that most data is compromised when devices are lost (whether they are provided by the company or not), or people with privileges misuse those privileges by accident or deliberately.

He continued on the security point that "it's not nearly about drastically limiting what people can do," but rather to tell them that the company will know when they are logged in and through which devices.

"It's a far more powerful incentive to people to be responsible and inappropriate to people against anything appropriate," he added.

At Salesforce.com, Coffee explained that they provide tremendous specificity on what privileges people are given and control over how those privileges can be used, such as rigorous protocols accessing network portals like Chatter via VPN.

Thus, employees should be provided with the tools and information needed to use their own devices, if desired, to get work done.

Coffee concluded, "If you do all those things correctly, whether someone is using a personally-owned device or a company-owned device, it becomes much less important."

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