Enterprise social software products are no longer just glorified intranets with news feeds offered by a few niche vendors. Business social networking tools have matured into social collaboration platforms and come to represent an increasingly crowded market, according to the latest Magic Quadrant for Social Software in the Workplace from Gartner Inc.
Gartner's research shows that collaboration pros have three vendor paths from which to choose -- specialist social application vendors, established enterprise platform vendors and business application vendors. Deciding among these vendor types and their differing applications will require companies to closely assess their user and business needs.
"[Many collaboration pros] have purchased a product that looks good on behalf of 'the organization, but then because there isn't this deep understanding of the various constituencies, they end up with a product that really doesn't gain adoption,” said Carol Rozwell, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner , one co-author of the report.
The best case scenario is to trial enterprise social software applications to test user adaptability.
Ryan Rutan, social business architect at National Instruments, an Austin, Texas-based producer of automated test equipment and virtual instrumentation software, first deployed Jive Software's social networking platform in 2007 for customer-facing business units to monitor external social media sites. Following two years of successful adoption, Rutan decided to pilot Jive as an enterprise social software platform for internal collaboration.
"We have a lot of recent college grads ... so our workforce is constantly getting this influx of new workers," Rutan said. "We wanted to give them a tool that's not just fun for them to use, but more importantly ... was going to be compelling to use and incentivize [them] to work."
The pilot lasted only two weeks due to a rapid surge in demand as more users heard about the benefits of "NI Talk," the internal branding for National Instruments' enterprise social software, from that short-lived pilot group, Rutan said.
"We have about 6,000 users worldwide that we consider part of our collaboration force, and I would say we got about 1,000 in the first month and 2,000 in the first three months, and it kept ramping up faster and faster," Rutan said. "We didn't even advertise it.... It just took off virally. People forwarded it to their friends because it was a tool they could use to get their work done, and today it's at 80% adoption."
Selecting the right enterprise social software vendor
Nearly two dozen vendors populate the social software Magic Quadrant and roughly fall into the three vendor types, according to lead author Nikos Drakos, a research director at Gartner.
Social application vendors, such as Jive, distinguish themselves by offering "primarily self-contained social software functions, albeit with some integration points to allow for information [to] flow to and from other systems," according to the report.
Platform vendors, which include Microsoft and IBM, incorporate enterprise social software as part of a broader portfolio of portals, content, workflow applications, search and other capabilities. Business application vendors, which include salesforce.com, integrate social features into their inherent "horizontal 'people processes,' such as performance management and learning, or people-intensive vertical business processes, such as account management and customer service," the report stated.
Users' collaboration needs are far too nuanced to fall into such tidy buckets, however, and must be evaluated with a more strategic approach, Rozwell cautioned.
In addition to testing various applications with business users, collaboration pros should also learn from users who circumvent IT by acquiring freemium or low-cost social collaboration tools "under the radar," she said. Enterprises often report that those rogue users adopted consumer-grade tools that offer more personalized profile pages, more robust search functions and Twitter- or Facebook-like activity streams, Rozwell said.
"These people who have been supplied with tools by their organizations oftentimes find those tools lacking,'" she said. "Instead of hunting down these people and trying to squash those activities, the wise knowledge manager or collaboration manager ... finds those groups of people and looks at what they did -- looks at the tool they used, looks at the productivity improvement in their work based on this tool -- and those start to be some examples of where technology can be useful."
Enterprise social software and 'Collaboration 2.0'
Before putting Jive into production at National Instruments in January 2010, Rutan evaluated a range of enterprise social software vendors, including fellow social application vendor Atlassian and platform incumbents Microsoft and IBM.
"You know how there's Web 1.0 and Web 2.0? I would almost call [the other tools] Collaboration 1.0 -- the bare minimum of being able to look at [a profile] and respond to [posts]," he said. "We wanted a tool that could use the commoditized features of content storing and give us something extra. We looked at IBM, we looked at Microsoft, we looked at Jive ... and it came out time and time again [that Jive was] the most user-friendly and the use cases we threw at it worked [with the platform]."
Overall, enterprise social software vendors have surpassed the "good enough" threshold and begun to mature with more advanced features and improved usability, according to the social software Magic Quadrant report. Vendors are also adding more widgets and enabling users to customize their homepages, similar to what Google did with iGoogle years ago, Rozwell said.
"Simplicity, intuitiveness, user-friendly -- all those silly clichés we've used over the years -- that is one big difference we've seen as the social software platforms have evolved. There's more fluiditiy and flexibility in them," she said. "It’s a more natural work style, and again, many of the features we're seeing you'd find on the consumer social software platforms."
Rutan has customized his Jive deployment very little from an administrative perspective, but he is collaborating with National Instruments' software developers to build plug-ins for NI Talk that would integrate clunky standalone business applications into a platform that users interact with constantly.
Although he has recently upgraded his Jive platform to version 5.0 and is pleased with the results, Rutan sees some room for improvement in its content management system (CMS). He would like to see Jive incorporate the ability to use serial workflows as well as lock down a document currently being edited. His software development team has developed a plug-in to work around the latter need.
"I call Jive the Swiss Army knife -- if there's any technology out there that's using open standards, Jive can pretty much integrate and interoperate with them," Rutan said.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, Senior News Writer.
Dig deeper on Social Networking for Business