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Social strategies: Enterprise-grade software, or consumer tools?

Many enterprise social strategies still include consumer tools, but businesses are starting to realize the benefits of enterprise social software.

Businesses have their pick of social software from all the major vendors and startups, like Cisco, IBM, Microsoft's Yammer and Jive, but many enterprise users are still opting for free, consumer social networking tools -- like Facebook and Twitter.

Enterprise social strategies are generally still immature and adoption of enterprise social tools has not yet reached the rate that the industry expected, said Rob Arnold, senior industry analyst at San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan Inc.

Real-time, social communication and collaboration outside of the siloed email inbox has become increasingly important for businesses, especially as mobile and remote working has become commonplace. Social software is fairly new to the market, and enterprises are starting to see the value of enterprise-grade social tools.

"The way that we think of enterprise social networking inside the enterprise is different than it was a few years ago," said Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc. "It's no longer a destination -- its more about surfacing the ability to collaborate and communicate wherever the users are, within whatever they are doing. Consumer social tools won't be able to replicate that."

Enterprise social strategies: Change how people work

Enterprise social strategies won't evolve overnight. But many social software vendors are adding consumer social networking capabilities to their products that users are familiar with, Shimmin said. "Consumer tools are still a part of many social strategies, but they aren't replacing or preventing businesses from buying enterprise social software," he said. "Social tools are helping enterprises improve upon their existing collaboration capabilities and serve as a more flexible means of communicating."

As businesses spread out geographically and the traditional workplace culture changes, more enterprise IT teams are budgeting for social software. The ability for collaboration and decision making to happen rapidly, even with a distributed workforce, is a major benefit of enterprise social tools, said the IT director of a large, U.S.-based educational organization who requested anonymity.

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With his organization recently under new leadership and undergoing a restructuring, the IT director has prioritized enabling the company's new employees to work together effectively, without being in the same building. The organization has relied on consumer tools -- like Google Hangouts -- for real-time collaboration and communications in the past, but the IT director is looking into vendor-based virtual collaboration rooms for group workspaces.

The ability to connect virtual workspaces to the existing Cisco WebEx Connect for instant messaging and presence, as well as the enterprise directory, will help to influence employee adoption and also help the new leaders with their vision for the company, the IT director said. "[Social tools] could really help our new leadership drive change culturally, because we want to work differently," he said.

Successful social strategies have to start with leadership. The educational organization recently refreshed its IT roadmap, emphasizing workplace productivity and social and collaboration spending. "Our changes start at the top and trickle down through the organization, rather than letting the change happen organically by workgroup, which can be a slow and arduous," the IT director said. "Our leadership is really buying into and pushing for a [social strategy], which I absolutely want to take advantage of," he said.

Enterprise social tools are already here to stay

Investing in enterprise social software is much different than buying a piece of hardware. "Enterprise social isn't just a piece of gear that sits on a desk," Current Analysis' Shimmin said. "It's a nuanced collection of communication modalities that are deeply tied to the company's business processes. Enterprises need to figure out how it's going to be integrated with existing systems, and how to weave together different departments within the company."

Many companies already have social tools in use, but they lack a coordinated strategy for using the tools, said Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Mokena, Ill.-based Nemertes Research Group Inc. Departments within the same company are adopting different tools they find, which doesn't offer a unified experience with other expertise within the company.

Vendors are adding social capabilities into their UC and collaboration applications -- like Chatter within "Even if [businesses] haven't really thought about a plan for an enterprise-wide social strategy, they probably have [the tools] already anyway," Lazar said.

If enterprises want to realize the full benefits of enterprise social software, they can't buy a simple point solution that stands alone. The technology should be part of a broader solution that integrates with existing business applications -- like content management systems, email and directories, Frost & Sullivan's Arnold said. "[Social tools] have to integrate with how the users are already doing their jobs because [the tools] lose value once they become another silo," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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