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

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.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

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.

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.
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