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Peter Biddle: Enterprise social networking ready for lift-off

Peter Biddle has left Microsoft for enterprise 2.0 company Trampoline. Here he talks about social networking's prospects in the corporate world.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Peter Biddle--the man behind Microsoft's BitLocker technology and Darknet--has caught the enterprise 2.0 bug. On August 8, Biddle joined London-based Trampoline Systems, a company that makes social networking software for corporations.

Trampoline's goal: Use social networking in the enterprise as a newfangled knowledge management system. The idea is to allow employees to find the expertise they need to. But unlike applications like Facebook, Trampoline's system--dubbed Sonar--auto populates networks based on algorithms that comb through documents and various relationships.

I recently spoke to Biddle, now vice president of development at Trampoline, and Charles Armstrong, CEO of Trampoline. Here's the recap of key points about Trampoline and enterprise 2.0.

On why Biddle left Microsoft for Trampoline:

Biddle says that the launch of Vista was a natural break to look "around and see what's out there." He had been pondering social networking for enterprise customers for "the last few years" and met with Armstrong, who documented social networks on an island just to see how information and relationships develop among a relatively small circle of people.

"It is an underserved market. The enterprise looks at social networking and cringes," says Biddle. "I think the space is huge. This one feels like security felt in 2000. I think there will be a tremendous amount of money and opportunity in this space. The notion of software for the enterprise brings out issues and opportunity."

(Note: Biddle didn't want to discuss Vista much. He did say that he has refrained from reading the press reports about Vista's success--or perceived lack of it--and all the whining about the new operating system).

On why social networking software has challenges in the enterprise:

Biddle says for enterprise social networking to become as popular as something like Facebook it has to be manageable, patchable and mesh well with group policies and privacy. Corporations also want phased rollouts with social software.

Overall, security is a big concern. "We threat model (Trampoline's Sonar) and understand the ways it can be broken," says Biddle.

Biddle adds that another issue facing Trampoline is difficulty explaining its software. "From where I sit probably the hardest part is that there isn't vocabulary to describe it really," says Biddle. "Social networking for the enterprise makes most people in the enterprise cringe, but we also have to explain it more clearly than enterprise 2.0."

Armstrong also noted a few more hurdles for social networking software in the enterprise. One big hurdle is "scarring from the boom in knowledge management in the late 1990s. Far too many cases never delivered value and didn't reach critical mass," says Armstrong.

Meanwhile, there are cultural issues. The move to utilizing social networking software is gradual and has to be managed carefully, says Armstrong. Unlike Facebook where people can see what you're doing not everyone in a company should see everything.

On how the social networking thing will pay off for corporations:

Biddle says in his previous life at Microsoft not a day went by where someone would come into his office and ask who has the details on some piece of code or project.

"You go through this Byzantine process because people move around. One person may have been on Windows and then split out to IE. Guys are over here and there. If we were lucky we'd find the right person, but we just sort of muddled through," says Biddle.

Social networking can come in handy because it can speed up that process Biddle described. For instance, Sonar maps relationships and finds people for you. That saves time and effort.

"Networks exist, but they are only good as the people in them. The enterprise doesn't know who's good at what and what they are doing. This is common at a large organization," says Biddle. "With social networking someone can switch jobs and be found six months later."

Armstrong also adds that companies don't need big workflow changes to make social networking work. "The changes are more subtle at the organizational level," he says.

On the importance of the user interface:

According to Armstrong, the user interface is everything for corporate social networking. The working theory: Make your corporate social networking software look like the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world.

"The user interface is critical. Our software is much more similar to consumer social networking site, but is clearly enterprise focused. With consumer products like Facebook or MySpace much of your time is spent on manually entering data. The big distinction in the enterprise is that you can't rely on manually entered data," says Armstrong. "We pick those things up automatically and while the look and feel is similar it's clear we have to auto populate."

Biddle adds that corporate enterprise software has to walk a line between usability and making sure you do your job. "We want 80 percent of it about doing your job and being better at it. No more than 20 percent of it is about is dorking around in the software," says Biddle.

Biddle wouldn't comment on the time spent dorking around Facebook, but from my experience it's a productivity drain.

On marketing corporate social networking:

Armstrong says Facebook has done the space a huge favor. Why? Unlike MySpace, decision makers are playing with Facebook and it's making them ponder how to use it within their companies.

On how Trampoline's Sonar works:

Armstrong says the initial process for the software is a process where the user goes through a process identifying information unique to him or her. From there, Sonar makes lists identifying the last 20 things you've worked on in the last two weeks and the last 20 people you talked to.

Trampoline uses an algorithm to sort out relationships. The analysis stems from Armstrong's ethnographic research where he spent 12 months on an island with 80 people to understand the dissemination of gossip and monitor social networks and authorities.

Biddle adds that metadata can also be layered on top of Sonar in the future. For instance, monitoring email can be used to find whether you forwarded a message to one person or 50 people. This data could also be used to determine what people are most important in your corporate network. For instance, you could exclude a person who never entices you to open his email.

Armstrong, who notes Sonar integrates with all mainstream email servers, document management applications and contact software, adds:

"This is about clues. A lot of our development process is focused on working out a handful of clues with the highest value."

Another thread with Sonar is that users have the ability to control what stays private.

On the competition:

Armstrong reckons that Trampoline's competitors range from natural language search firms like Autonomy as well as Microsoft and ultimately all of the big enterprise software companies including Oracle and IBM.

Biddle adds:

"I believe all of the major players--Microsoft, Google, IBM, Yahoo and Sun--will all spitting out software in this space."

On not getting squashed by larger players:

Armstrong notes that Sonar isn't a replacement for any of the parts in a company's infrastructure. It's essentially an extra later. "In that sense the purchasing decision isn't about supplanting specific needs or functions," says Armstrong.

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