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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Social networking may have come from the consumer world, but it has since permeated the enterprise and become more widely adopted for business use. But the use of enterprise social networking platforms won't become part of an employee's daily routine without some degree of integration with everyday communications services like voice and messaging.
That's not to say enterprise social tools are without merit. On the contrary, a social networking platform has the potential to make collaboration more efficient. Consider this example: Three employees on an email chain exchange a dozen messages about a problem they cannot solve. If one of those users posted a question about the same problem to a department- or company-wide social network, an expert outside their team might spot it and immediately offer a solution.
Social without UC is just one part of the social enterprise picture.
president, COMMfusion LLC
But without any support for real-time communications, enterprise social networking platforms cannot realistically be considered standalone tools. The addition of real-time unified communications (UC) services like voice, video, presence and instant messaging (IM), however, could elevate enterprise social networking to the next level, said Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst at Santa Rosa, Calif.-based COMMfusion LLC and UCStrategies.com, and moderator of a panel discussion about the social enterprise at Enterprise Connect 2013 in Orlando this week.
"Social without UC is just one part of the social enterprise picture," Pleasant said.
Augmenting social tools with UC functionality
Whereas consumer social networking sites can help users connect with people outside their usual social circles, enterprise social tools differ in that they connect internal employees to their colleagues.
"The goal with enterprise social tools is to enhance relationships," Pleasant said. "We aren't talking about reaching out to anyone and anybody can see your posts, like social in the consumer space. It's really for invited guests and, ideally, integration with existing business applications -- like directories."
While enterprise social platforms -- like Cisco Systems' WebEx Social, Microsoft's Yammer and SharePoint, and IBM's Connections -- enable users to communicate via activity streams, the conversations that take place on them are incomplete, Pleasant said. Social tools, bolstered with UC functionality -- like click-to-call, video conferencing or IM embedded directly within the activity stream or news feed -- would allow employees to easily continue the interaction in real-time.
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Meetrix Communications, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based integrator offering IBM's Connections software and Sametime UC platform as cloud services, has also deployed Connections for internal use. With offices across the United States and software engineers abroad, the company needed an ongoing collaboration tool that could help employees communicate, regardless of time-zone differences.
But users weren't eager to adopt yet another tool to use alongside their software development and project management applications, said Patrick Dexter, director of sales for Meetrix and a speaker on the panel during the panel discussion. "With social [tools], we were able to integrate some of the features of the project management software into IBM Connections and fully displace the [legacy] software," he said.
The company was also able to integrate real-time UC functions with Connections so users don't have to jump from application to application, Dexter said. "We are able to see status of the individual we are looking for and start a video call right from the same screen, without interruption," he said. "We also integrated our messaging from our CRM solution into Connections."
CDW, a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based IT hardware and software reseller and service provider, adopted a social strategy to unify its engineering and sales teams. The provider had migrated from SharePoint to a wiki-based platform, but content started becoming stale and hard to find, said Ken Snyder, emerging technology solutions lead at CDW. Users began to demand more real-time communications in their social tools. "Our users wanted more -- they wanted the wiki on mobile devices and they wanted to do video, and this pushed us down the social path," he said.
CDW made the move to Cisco Quad, a social networking platform Cisco has since rebranded as WebEx Social. As at Meetrix, the collaboration pros at CDW knew that users didn't want to use several different applications, so finding a social tool with real-time communication capabilities built into the platform was important.
"Delivering that total collaboration experience on multiple devices and allowing users to communicate any way they want is key to fueling adoption and removing barriers," Snyder said.
Giving users the complete tool set: Instant, social communication
Success in enterprise social networking doesn't always come easy, but it can deliver tangible benefits.
After deploying Connections internally, the collaboration pros at Meetrix have managed to get users out of the habit of checking email first thing in the morning. Instead, they fire up a social platform replete with UC functionality. The combined social and UC strategy has helped Meetrix employees become more productive, Dexter said. "We have seen less of a need for extensive conference calls and Web meetings; they end up being [shorter] and allow everyone to get back to work," he said. "While we still need that communication, if you can limit them to a quicker period of time, it can greatly increase productivity throughout the company."
CDW has seen the same productivity gains with WebEx Social. "[The social tool] started by cutting hour-long meetings down to a half-hour, and now some of those [meetings] have turned into social communities, where groups can post when they need to if it's not a time-sensitive item," Snyder said.
The challenge that many enterprises face when trying to get their social strategy to catch on is the fact that users have to leave the tool to communicate by other means.
When integrated with UC, users can have instant communication alongside social networking, Meetrix's Dexter said. At the same time, enterprises should keep in mind that the most important aspect of UC is being able to embed the functionality within other applications, he said. "Using social as a standalone product is destined for failure," he added.