The 'social enterprise' comes of age

Social computing has catapulted to the forefront of discussion among enterprise thought leaders. Here's some of the exciting reasons why.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

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

First-rate CRM analyst, Denis Pombriant, explains that Chatter surprised many people, which is one reason it has received so much attention:

One thing that impressed me about Dreamforce was Salesforce’s ability to be creative, to invent something completely unexpected to announce in Chatter.  Whether Chatter will be any good when it is released next year is debatable but Salesforce did what it was supposed to do in bringing out a big new idea for its assembled customers.

Although Salesforce has upped the mojo on positioning social computing for the enterprise, we should remember they aren't the first major software company to embrace social networking in a big way. For examples, look no further than Oracle and SAP.

Oracle's internal collaboration platform has been around since mid-2007, built by an exciting group inside the company called the AppsLab. This small team is forward-looking and has its ear to the ground, even though its work has not received attention at anywhere near the scale of Chatter.

SAP has also focused thought leadership on social computing. A recent article written by Mark Yolton, Senior Vice President of the SAP Community Network, intrigued me. Mark describes a vision for the strategic value of social computing that he calls the "borderless enterprise." It's worth noting that his community has almost two million members.

From the article:

Social media and social networks are driving business transformation and engendering a true borderless enterprise, which I believe has at least four key attributes:

Agility: [T]he ability of a business or other enterprise (think government agency, not-for-profit, NGO...) to respond rapidly and efficiently to changes in its ecosystem or market.

Collaboration: [M]embers of the organization and its extended ecosystem (partners, suppliers, customers...) can connect and collaborate on short-term day-to-day transactional solutions and workarounds, business-process issues or improvements or innovations, and higher-level longer-term strategic projects. [Members] participate in active sharing in order to create a rising tide that lifts all boats - including their own.

Co-Innovation: Customers and the sponsoring company, plus its partners and suppliers, engage in different phases of product (or service, or whole solution) innovation.... Co-innovation can lead to higher customer satisfaction, since customers have a direct hand in the final outcome of products and services which presumably then do a better job of meeting their needs and those of the larger market ... and that resulting customer success helps the sponsoring enterprise and its partners in their business goals and endeavors.

Organic: Rather than behaving according to narrow and restrictive "mechanical" processes or rigid practices, rules, and ideas, a borderless enterprise can respond more organically.... The company can be more responsive to change, and eventually it doesn't just bend to new requirements, but builds and grows organically as a result of interacting with its environment rather than according to some top-down longer-term centralized model.

Mark makes a great case for social networking as a positive transformation force in business.


Chatter introduces an important concept of software that combines messages from machines with status updates from people in a simple interface.

Paul Greenberg, whose knowledge of CRM systems, history, people, products, companies, and strategy blows my mind, believes this is one of Chatter's key dimensions (emphasis added):

Chatter is the first fully integrated, aggregate social "foundation layer" to meet the requirements for supporting salesforce.com as a company that embraces Social CRM. That's great for the market....

Chatter's ability to create feeds for not just people, but content and applications is both its unique feature and its most important benefit - though not without what are either flaws or questions, because it was hard to get answers. Any data object's status in your system including competitive vendor's systems e.g. SAP inventory management - can be delivered via an RSS feed. Thus you can not only get real time status on what your employees or customers or competitors are doing with internal or external information but you can also get inventory status, or order status or the status of telling you of updates to a presentation

Clearly, Paul agrees that integrating machine and application updates into a Twitter-like stream is a fascinating area of development that holds much promise.

I asked a fellow member of the Enterprise Irregulars to explain this aspect of Chatter. Dennis Moore is a veteran executive of both Oracle and SAP, and currently works for a startup that's in stealth mode; his voice is worth careful consideration:

Chatter isn't just social as in "people sending status updates to each other."  Chatter is software-is-social as in "software sending status updates."  If all your applications published status updates, with links back to the place in the app where you can get more info or act on the status change, and if all status updates were organized in a taxonomy so you could look at specific topics across apps and people (e.g., a specific customer, or a specific deal, or a specific competitor), that is a potential game changer.  There are some problems with Chatter's approach; for example, existing apps do not publish status updates.  Still, this is a very interesting new product clarifying that "social" in the enterprise will be very different from "social" in the consumer space.

SAP's Imagineering Group has done substantial work on the idea of placing sensors into the fabric of an organization. This concept is similar to Salesforce.com's view of combining human- and machine-generated status messages into a single stream, although SAP's vision is far more sophisticated and complete.

I recently spent several hours with Denis Browne, SAP's Senior Vice President of Imagineering, discussing his team's work. In my experience, the Imagineering team is among the most innovative working at SAP today.

This diagram presents an overview of SAP's Live Enterprise architecture, showing how data flows ultimately get pushed to end users:


For those who love detail, here's a schematic view of Live Enterprise events flowing from sensors to people:


My take. The promise of convergence between consumer social computing and large-scale enterprise technology is at hand, making this a vibrant and creative time. As definitions of consumer and enterprise blur, future success belongs to vendors that innovate and adapt to evolving perceptions around what "enterprise" actually means.

[Photo from iStockphoto]

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