Enterprise social software primer: Next-generation collaboration

This primer offers everything you need to know to get started with enterprise social software, including key features and functions, business benefits and adoption challenges.

Enterprise social software is a category of business applications that applies the dynamic, community-oriented approach of social networking to a corporate environment.  The technology offers a new mode of collaboration that can make employees more efficient and productive.  Typically deployed over a corporate Intranet, these applications incorporate the functionality of Facebook or Twitter with enterprise-grade security protections, delivery model options and analytics.

While enterprise social software mirrors the casual virtual online communications more commonly associated with off-hours interactions, the focus is very much on tangible results.  The real return comes in many forms, including significant process improvements, accelerated time to market and cost reductions. At least conceptually, enterprise social software tools  can be deployed relatively easily and require little or no customization.

Why you need to know about enterprise social software

Businesses are gravitating toward enterprise social software for a myriad of reasons. At the very least, it’s an alternative tool for mining actionable information from the boundless proliferation of corporate data produced by employees. This software provides employees a practical way to access and share data among colleagues, whether they are down the hall from one another, in separate branch offices or working in a partner organization. Enterprise social software also gives businesses a mechanism for locating and using staff knowledge across the organization. 

Enterprise social software can also help businesses cut expenses, improve efficiencies and accelerate time to market, a priority in today’s prolonged period of global market volatility.

Despite these top-down incentives, users typically spur enterprise social software adoption, much like they did on the device side when executives started bringing their own smartphones, laptops and other computing devices to work and expected to have access to enterprise resources. Today employees are pushing for enterprise social software that mirrors the familiarity and the functionality of consumer-oriented solutions.  

This demand is resulting in a rapid increase in the number of implementations of enterprise social software. Gartner projects worldwide revenues from enterprise social software will top $769 million this year, nearly a 16% jump from 2010.

These applications are already changing how organizations communicate and collaborate. Industry observers are predicting that enterprise social software will overtake email as the preferred method of business communication in a few years.  An IT organization needs to understand what objectives its company wants to fulfill through the software in order to choose the best product for the business’ needs. 

What are the key functions and features of enterprise social software?

Although feature sets vary from one enterprise social software platform to another, by definition these applications share some common attributes.  Enterprise social software provides inclusive and accessible networking connections among individuals with relevant business relationships by establishing links between user profiles.  

The key capabilities of enterprise social software include rich user profiles to help establish role-based connections; community-based tools that can run the gamut from discussion forums and blogs to wikis; event streaming in real time; and analytics such as expertise location functionality.  Vendors use a variety of delivery models for enterprise social software, including cloud-based and on-premises delivery or via an appliance.

The enterprise social software vendor landscape is crowded with both small and large companies whose products vary significantly in focus and capabilities.  Some of the top vendors in the space include Cisco Systems, Google, IBM, Jive, Microsoft, Oracle NewsGator, Salesforce, Telligent and VMware.  Other familiar names such as Yammer also play in this arena with solutions that possess a subset of the product functionality that businesses expect from social enterprise software.

There are a broad set of use cases for these applications that cross particular industry and horizontal organizational requirements.  These include social networking within a business for the purpose of expert search, collaboration for knowledge exchange, tactical enterprise communication, personal information management and more effective project management.

How does enterprise social software compare to traditional collaboration and intranet software?

Enterprise social software provides some features that parallel more traditional collaboration and Intranet-based software packages such as Microsoft SharePoint. These include using community-based exchanges for project collaboration. However, enterprise social software improves upon the older packages that some companies view as too static with more holistic and dynamic feature sets.  Enterprise social software packages are also easier to use and higher functioning, without the heavy customization requirement associated with conventional collaboration platforms.

However, these legacy collaboration packages that businesses have spent considerable time and money deploying and supporting can actually provide a good entry point for businesses looking to tap into enterprise social software.  Vendors such as NewsGator offer software that works with legacy applications like SharePoint to create more dynamic collaboration environments.  Ultimately, these applications can not only help organizations preserve their legacy technology investment but also realize the benefits of enterprise social software faster than if they were starting from scratch.

What are the key benefits of enterprise social software?

Enterprise social software is a user-friendly technology that offers up so many potential business benefits.  These platforms can support better, more efficient and effective collaboration while aggregating information and exposing the right data and the most appropriate user connections to the relevant employees.

Organizations that use this software effectively report a relatively low total cost of ownership with a high return on their investment.  Though many of the benefits of enterprise social software can be hard to quantify, successful use cases point to more effective information sharing that can ultimately lead to more successful project outcomes and greater employee and customer satisfaction.

What challenges do enterprises face when adopting enterprise social software?

Conceptually, enterprise social software looks extremely promising.  However, there are some obstacles to success that both key business stakeholders and IT organizations need to understand before they deploy the technology.  

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is around user comfort levels with the applications.  While many users are drawn to enterprise social software by its ease of use, others, particularly older employees who aren’t consumers of social networking in their private lives, are suspicious of the technology and find it difficult to use. In some cases, this discomfort translates into a lack of executive buy-in which can delay or derail an implementation.

Some organizations see enterprise social software as a poor fit for their industry, perceiving it as more of a distraction than a productivity enhancer.  Others look at the technology as too risky for their business, expressing concerns about security and privacy. 

Often IT has doubts about the technology, questioning how easily it can be deployed and managed.  Both IT and business executives also may put off a deployment on the basis of lack of confidence in the real ROI potential of enterprise social software.


About the author:

Amy DeCarlo has covered technology for 18 years.    She is a Principal Analyst with competitive intelligence firm Current Analysis.

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