As a Web-based consumer application, you quickly discover that while Twitter itself is a terrific environment, it isn't very usable yet for businesses because of it lacks a variety of capabilities needed to fully work on the local intranet (details on this below). You wonder what other options exist to bring microblogging to the workplace in a business-friendly manner. Plenty, it turns out.
As we'll see, choosing one carefully will be key to the long-term success of your experiment.
With the recent growth of Web 2.0 tools in the workplace (to about half of all organizations today), this scenario is becoming more common. The good news is that the broad success of Twitter over the last year has led to the introduction of a whole series of business-focused microblogging applications that bring many (though not yet all) of the necessary enterprise capabilities to the microblogging world.
What exactly is microblogging? Unless you've used Twitter for a while you may be forgiven for wondering why traditional blog platforms you might have already adopted can't be used for microblogging. With some exceptions (most notably Wordpress and its free Prologue 2 microblogging offering), most blog platforms just aren't up to the task. Microblogging has its own mode of operation that is similar though definitely distinct from traditional blogs.
Microblogs have unique capabilities -- and often, constraints -- like short messages (often as little as 140 characters, like Twitter), a social messaging-friendly user profile with a short handle, integration of automatic URL shorteners, specialized tagging, and a Twitter-compatible API to use the dozens of high quality clients on desktop and mobile platforms are just some differences between blogs and microblogs. Ultimately, if you want to use the right tool for the job, you're probably going to need a specialized microblogging tool if you decide to adopt this rapidly emerging new type of social messaging.
Adding an enterprise context to microblogsMost businesses, particularly larger ones, also have their own unique requirements that can include at least seven critical areas that microblogging platforms can only ignore at their own peril. These needs arise for a variety of reasons but generally fall into the categories of security, governance, and policy. For example, this might include having to comply with internal and external technical standards, industry and local regulations, enterprise architecture guidelines, and so forth.
The enterprise is a mini-world of rules in its own right and the freewheeling environment of the Web has to be combined in some workable way with the tighter constraints of the workplace. All Web 2.0 tools face these challenges and this often means waiting for larger enterprise firms to produce enterprise-class versions of these kinds of applications that will be acceptable them, though certainly many are also adopting the consumer versions.
The seven enterprise areas that microblogging tools should address are:
- Search and analytics. You probably already have an enterprise search engine but just like Google wasn't good enough for Twitter, you'll need to make sure you microblogging tool has effective search. In addition, Twitter has also shown us that it's not just the app itself, but the ecosystem that makes it truly valuable and you'll be leaving most of the value of microblogging on the floor if you just have a microblogging tool. Social analytics is a relatively new field and some of the better tools that extract near real-time value from social messaging analytics (like TweetMeme) at present only work with Twitter. However, increasingly there are real options; see this extensive list of social networking analysis tools on Wikipedia for some good examples.
- Single Sign-On/Identity. Most well-managed organizations require centralized identity and single sign-on via LDAP, Active Directory, or some other managed enterprise-wide security system.
- Support for Enterprise Portals. Many organizations have standardized on portal systems for providing much of their intranet experience, as such support for JSR-168 portlets or WSRP is required to host microblogs in such environments or the IT department must devise its own solution.
- Data archiving/ECM integration. The 2.0 wave has largely passed by the world of enterprise content management (ECM), though the industry is increasingly engaged in embracing with and dealing with social media today. This process of reconciling the world of enterprise content with enterprise social media is going to require connection of social messaging information flows into ECM archiving systems for compliance requirements ranging from Sox to 7 year legal retention requirements at the very least. In my recent examination of broader Enterprise 2.0 adoption, I noted research that found that only 25% of organizations are dealing with this disconnect today.
- On-Premises Hosting. While off-premises SaaS and cloud computing are hot topics and the adoption rate is currently growing even in large companies, many organizations will still require microblogging solutions that can be hosted and deployed internally for a variety of reasons.
- Multi-Level Access and Groups. Consumer microblogging tools tend to be all or nothing when it comes to who can view an individual's updates, usually by making all updates either public or visible only to approved followers (this is what Twitter does today.) The business world is more complex and requires group level access that can control the flow of sensitive information and other content that needs to be controlled and distributed to specific audiences only. While this might seem anathema to the open world of social media sharing -- and indeed most microblogging environments that excessively use them will likely see diminished value -- the requirement remains an an overridingly important one for most businesses. This becomes critical especially when working in highly federated organizations that want to communicate securely with external partners over private networks; multi-level access allows social messages to stay in the social circle for which they are intended.
- Selective Multi-Channel Publishing. Closely related to multi-level access, selective channel publishing allows certain social messages to go through specified channels such as external microblogs, badges, 3rd party social networks, and so on. For example, some microblog updates should be seen only internally, within ones team, or perhaps everyone across all channels, public and private. In a crude manner, this can be done today by creating a microblog for each individual channel but it creates lots of duplication as well, since a message must be resent from each microblog instead of just once from the client application. Few tools support multi-channel publishing today though can often be enabled by hand via the use of hashtags and some simple glue on the server-side. For long term adoption, this will become an intrinsic feature of microblogging tools for efficiency and completeness of corporate communication.
This might seem like an extensive list and while it will apply broadly to a great many organizations, every business is different and there will be probably be more additions to it than subtractions for many firms. The business of enterprise IT is only become more sophisticated and 2.0 tools have not been making the job simpler. Somewhat surprisingly, given their business focus, not many of today's crop of corporate-focused microblogging tools actively deals well with most these important enterprise issues, though many of them offer support for some of them. We'll see how they break down below, but today's microblogging tools still require a fair amount of compromise on the part of the customer.
Read my 2006 examination of the ways of adding enterprise context to traditional blogs.
Seventeen microblogging tools for businessThere are now literally dozens of microblogging tools available from online services, commercial software companies, and via open source distributions. I attempted to identify those that are specifically aimed at the business market and came up with this list of seventeen. Almost certainly it is incomplete, and if you leave the details in Talkback below, I'll add any reasonable submission as an addendum to this list. Please also submit the reason why you believe your submission is business-focused.
This following list of microblogging tools for business is in no particular order:
- SocialText Signals is part of a broader Enterprise 2.0 suite that provides a robust version of the expected Twitter functionality while working well in context with other SocialText capabilities including their blogs, wikis, desktop, and dashboard products. Significantly, SocialText has support for Active Directory and LDAP and also has connectors for the popular enterprise ECM and communication tools Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Connections. SocialText offers on-premises deployment through a hosted appliance option.
- SocialCast is an Internet hosted (meaning it has to run on their servers) microblogging tool for businesses. It has the requisite user profiles, activity streams, and a special feature for asking questions to the broader workplace to explicit tap into corporate collective intelligence. It can keep social messages private just to the company and has one of the better social analytics dashboards available. It's unclear if SocialCast has support for any corporate identity standards or can interoperate with enterprise portals/ECM, etc.
- CubeTree is a newer microblogging offering that offers structured social messages (unlike Twitter Web client, replies form a tree structure which can be more convenient for business activities), different message types such a quizzes, control over notifications to prevent social messaging overload, and like Friendfeed (a consumer microblogging platform that aggregates activity from social activity on other sites), it can integrate activities from a limited but growing variety of other tools such as WebEx and Salesforce.
- Yammer is one of the more popular microblogging tools for business at the moment and it got off to a great start when it won the top prize at last year's TechCrunch50. Of late, Yammer has been getting increasingly sophisticated from an enterprise perspective and includes policy-based controls, bulk account management, directory integration, and even such governance tools as keyword monitoring to check workers' compliance with things like social media guidelines. Yammer also has a desktop client as well as an iPhone application and overall is one of the better looking and functioning microblogging tools.
- Communote bills itself as a professional microblogging service and is a hosted tool that offers blog and file management features in addition to simple microblogging. It can manage both public as well as private corporate microblogs.
- ESME is an intriguing experiment in business microblogging and is an official Apache incubator project, meaning it is open source. The ESME project describes it as a "secure and highly scalable microsharing and micromessaging platform that allows people to discover and meet one another and get controlled access to other sources of information, all in a business process context." ESME supports OpenID, which can be used for enterprise single-sign on. It also has an Adobe AIR client as well as a Web client. For more details, read Oliver Mark's excellent write-up of ESME on ZDNet.
- Laconica is a free and open source microblogging platform that also runs the infrastructure behind the Identi.ca service. Its two strengths for business microblogging is that it can be easily installed on-premise and it has an open plug-in architecture, so any needed functionality can be theoretically developed or acquired.
- IDidWork is an interesting take on microblogging by using the concept of a employee maintaining a work log as the central activity of the service. Managers can then review work logs, workers can see (and prove) how they contributed to the team, and managers can even track their management time and use the service to guide those that they manage. IDidWork is a hosted service and like many of the hosted services in this list, it focuses on core functionality more than the requirements of enterprise infrastructure.
- OraTweet, contrary to the name and associated branding, is not actually an official Oracle product but it has many of the enterprise features you'd come to expect from a large software firm. A freely downloadable application, OraTweet supports Single Sign-On, groups, and integration into unified communications as well as associated APEX functionality, with which it was developed.
- Present.ly is another leading business microblogging contender that has a good set of business communication features. In particular, Present.ly offers both ad hoc and structured groups, a question answering system based on previously gathering collective intelligence, a Twitter compatible API, and mobile clients. Present.ly currently emphasizes off-premises hosting but will entertain case-by-case on-site installations.
- HeadMix is a slightly different take on the concept of social business software and microblogging in particular. Used by large firms such as Best Buy, HeadMix specializes in messaging in between employees using their existing communication flows such as Outlook.
- WordPress's Prologue 2 is not a microblogging product per se. Instead, it recreates much of the model for microblogging on the famous and well-regarded WordPress blogging platform. WordPress itself is a very competent enterprise blogging tool with rich features designed specifically for sophisticated blogging communities and with over 5,000 plug-ins currently available. While itself one of the less capable microblogging tools, P2 is surely one of the easiest to enable if you are already using WordPress today.
- OpenMicroBlogger is an open source and free microblogging application that is especially design for intranets/extranets. Feature rich OpenMicroBlogger offers a robust security model that can support groups, rooms, and multi-level access, cross-broadcasting to other services such as Twitter and Identi.ca, an open app store, and more. It offers OpenID support for identity and can be hosted behind the firewall.
- Lotus Sametime Advanced is on this list even though it's not technically a microblogging tool but a powerful, enterprise-class social collaboration and unified communication platform. Not only does it have extensive enterprise features including Single Sign-On, portal support, integration with SharePoint, the advanced version of SameTime also includes persistent group chat, which is very similar to microblogging and has support for groups and other multi-channel features. Because most microblogging features are consumer apps with some enterprise capabilities added, SameTime comes from the opposite side; bringing IBM's famously capable business-savvy on top of the capability that many will find hard to distinguish from true microblogging. For many IBM shops, this will be a viable potential solution, at least until Connections 3.5 is out, which is supposed to have formal microblogging support.
- Co-op is a hosted service designed for co-workers that want to integrate social messaging into their work activities. Containing a time tracker and agenda, Co-op is a unique form of business microblogging that takes a serious view of collaboration via microblogging in a business context.
- Yonkly is primarily designed for businesses to create a social messaging connection with their customers rather than microblog internally. It has both public and private capability and deep integration with numerous services including Twitter and others.
- Quite a few of you might not be expecting to see Microsoft Office SharePoint (MOSS) on this list, but as I covered by my popular Enterprise 2.0 with SharePoint post a couple of months back, it's the one quasi-2.0 tool that just about every medium to large sized business already has. Does MOSS have microblogging built in? Not exactly. Is it very enterprise friendly and comply with just about every element of enterprise context I cover above? Yes, more than virtually every other tool in this list. So what is it missing then? For one, like just about everything with SharePoint, you have to coax it (customize it and configure it extensively) to do what you need. In this case, you have to configure the microblogging behavior you're looking for. How? The best description I've seen of this is Michael Gannotti's extensive post on the subject. Unfortunately, like trying to do many Web 2.0 things with SharePoint, it may be ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. But for many shops, it will be the shortest route to meet the the largest set of requirements. Hopefully for Microsoft shops, the company will offer a microblogging service of their own soon.
So that's the current list of microblogging apps for business. Please be warned that it's probably not perfect yet and I'll post any updates and corrections here as needed. But it's an excellent start for those trying to get a lay of the enterprise social messaging landscape.
Also be sure to read the Ten leading platforms for creating online communities.
Finally, while many organizations are still putting their Enterprise 2.0 plans in place, now is the time to consider integrating microblogging into a next-generation IT strategy. While the tools market for business microblogging is still quite young and it's far from clear yet which products will dominate, indications are strong (see my year of Enterprise 2.0 post) that social tools will increasingly be the preferred mode of communication for today's workers. Organizations should be prepared to think through their options and decide if, when, and how microblogging will be represented in their 2.0 plans.
Did I miss any good tools? Have opinions on microblogging and the workplace? Please leave your comments in Talkback below.