Taming the Chatter cloud

To prove meaningful in the enterprise, Salesforce.com Chatter is not only going to have to be upfront about its social capabilities but is also going to have to come with tools that help deliver business value. That could prove a tough nut to crack.

Not attending Dreamforce, it appears I missed a telling moment, the irony of which I would have enjoyed had I been there to witness it in person. It seems Salesforce.com has announced a new feature named after that most social of activities, Chatter, which aims to bring to the enterprise the functionality seen in social network tools such as Twitter and Facebook. But as Marc Benioff later told a gathering of press and analysts, it's not a social network, oh no.

As I wasn't there I can only go from what's been reported. But it seems Benioff (no doubt guided by his marketing advisors) has decided to follow the advice promulgated at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco — by no less a figure than Enterprise 2.0 guru Andrew McAfee — not to overuse the word social in front of business software buyers when talking about, erm, social computing. "I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to managers in enterprise organizations," McAfee warned his audience two weeks ago.

Benioff this week was devastatingly forthright about why social isn't going to figure in his sales team's lexicon when they tell customers about Chatter. According to VentureBeat's Anthony Ha (my emphasis added):

"Salesforce was careful to position Chatter as a collaboration tool, not a 'social this or social that' because there's such a glut of social networking tools, he said, and customers are more willing to pay for collaboration software. 'We really want to talk about collaboration, because that really is a budget item for our customers,' Benioff said."

So there we have it. Chatter's going to be positioned as a collaboration tool, because that's what customers are willing to pay for. I can still see problems ahead for this product, on three fronts, but let's deal with that positioning question first, because I have quite strong views about it.

Interestingly, Microsoft seems to share no such qualms about naming its shiny new add-on the Outlook Social Connector — perhaps because its customers already have a SharePoint budget. Elsewhere, though, it seems large segments of the Enterprise 2.0 vendor community are colluding with their customers to deny the social component of social computing.

Back in the day, I guess Darwin had the same problem when he came along with the theory of evolution and its somewhat discomfiting conclusion that human beings are just another species of animal. Sure, we can do civilization, but we're still animals at heart. Similarly, we do business, but we're also social creatures. Isn't that something to celebrate rather than trying to deny it? As I wrote in response to McAfee's talk, it would be better to be upfront about the enterprise impact of embracing social:

"Ultimately, it's the people that assess risks, do deals, manage change, take decisions and earn the rewards of success (or carry the can for failure). Corporate management and business itself are essentially social activities in that they depend on interactions between people. That's why computing has to evolve to become social — to become people-centric instead of merely machine-centric. We need to redefine the word social so that it's no longer perceived as the antithesis of business and instead acknowledge the degree to which organizations rely on human interaction to achieve their objectives."

However much Salesforce.com may try to gloss over the social component of its new functionality, the name of course betrays its true intent. And of course, at the heart of resistance to social computing in the enterprise is the suspicion that it's simply encouraging people to engage in purposeless timewasting. Will Chatter be just as meaningless in the enterprise?

To this point, Dion Hinchcliffe has just published an interesting exploration of what he calls The Three Waves of Enterprise 2.0. I think it highlights a huge hurdle that every enterprise will have to get across as it extends its IT infrastructure to embrace the social dimension: that is, how to deal with information overload. Just as individuals often hesitate to sign up for Twitter or Facebook because they worry whether they'll have time to cope with the constant torrent of information (something I've always struggled with, certainly), so enterprises face a similar challenge, but on an enterprise scale — with implications for systems, processes and training needs. As Dion explains (inevitably I'm truncating liberally here — go read the article):

"Once active social computing communities start generating shared knowledge, the act of browsing the intranet or using enterprise search engines causes much more information to be discovered, some of it relevant in the moment but most of it probably not ... Ultimately, this will lead to an information explosion that enterprises will have to figure out how to deal with ... consumption efficiency in this new world of information abundance ... will therefore be the measure of your ability to access business value with Enterprise 2.0."

Building Chatter into the Salesforce.com application stack means the vendor is going to have to think carefully about how it's going help its customers manage that information overload challenge. It seems to be doing that, but it may prove to be a huge undertaking. (By the way, Dion Hinchcliffe and I will be discussing Enterprise 2.0 adoption and business value in a webcast roundtable coming up on December 10 (see disclosure) — it should be an interesting 45 minutes).

My third area of concern for Chatter is that I'm frankly a little embarrassed that, while I was berating Microsoft for the slow pace at which its customers will be able to adopt Outlook Social Connector, the availability of Chatter was being announced as calendar 2010, whatever that means. I expect better delivery schedules from on-demand vendors, and I wonder why it's being pre-announced quite so early. Cloud vendors don't usually do vaporware, and surely it would have been better to introduce this more incrementally rather than committing to a vision that may turn out a tougher nut to crack than it first appears. We'll see how it turns out.