If you spend any time reading about enterprise software these days, headlines and phrases like this have become pretty common:
• ”Social software is an entirely new way to work!”
• ”We can break free of the tyranny of email.”
• ”Web 2.0 is so much easier to use than those clunky old enterprise applications – and Enterprise 2.0 means we don’t have to use them any more.”
Passionate evangelism often stimulates new movements. Enterprise 2.0 has been no exception. Our company played a big part in creating the enthusiasm you see in the corporate world for social technologies, and that’s a point of pride for us. But although the enterprise social software space has enjoyed incredible growth and the pace of innovation continues at an amazing clip, it’s also important to take a long, more pragmatic view to the future, one that considers the realities of the customers we serve and the investments they’ve made in past years.
Of course it’s true that the Web 2.0 movement created a new way to think about software, stimulating all of us to ask “why do I get a better software experience from Netflix and Amazon.com than from my own IT organization?” The explosive growth of blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have given hundreds of millions of people a great willingness to share, which many Enterprise 2.0 vendors (Socialtext included) are capitalizing on. And yes, for much of the early phases of this industry, a lot has been accomplished with almost no regard for those very applications that have frustrated employees for so many years.
But it’s important to keep in mind that the real problems that enterprise social software helps organizations overcome are information and knowledge silos – that huge benefits are reaped by unlocking and releasing information and knowledge across teams, groups, departments, functional organizations, business units, and even company boundaries. We’ve made it simple (yet secure) for employees to cross those boundaries by riding the cross-organizational communications wave that social software enables, with compelling results. This is one of the most important ways that enterprise social software is more than just “yet another attempt to improve collaboration.” Yes, it’s great for team and workgroup productivity, but the greatest benefit accrues when it is explicitly and proactively spread across the gaps between organizational (and the attending information and communications) silos.
For those of us who believe in the transformative power of social software, we must now think about how to make social productivity more substantial, by weaving the ability for enterprise social software to release information and knowledge that was previously trapped in organizational and communications silos together with the transactional and workflow capabilities that 80% of IT budgets are spent maintaining – traditional enterprise systems of record (CRM, ERP, HRM, etc.) We should work with and integrate, not ignore, these enterprise applications in an holistic way.
As we undergo the challenge of rectifying the new with the old, I worry there’s some trends underway in our space that would undermine that effort. A common question that I’m asked by analysts and journalists should elucidate what I’m getting at: “Well, why don’t the big boys just add social features to their existing enterprise applications? Isn’t it a simple matter of programming to add Twitter-like functionality to an existing enterprise application, giving customers the best of both worlds?”
Indeed, traditional enterprise application vendors such as Salesforce.com with Chatter and SAP with 12Sprints have caught the “social is sexy” fever. They have bolted social features onto their existing application, trumpeting how this social skin will make their software easier and more fun to use, stickier, and more engaging.
While we have applauded their embrace of social technologies, and the validation and enthusiasm (Salesforce.com in particular) brings to the Enterprise 2.0 world, the long term consequence of an enterprise making this their social software strategy will cause us to miss the opportunity of true enterprise wide collaboration that can have a transformative effect on core business processes. That’s because if social tools are just a feature add-on to an enterprise system dedicated to a specific business function, it doesn’t look pretty when we fast-forward that movie. The end result will be a plethora of social silos or islands — groups of employees sharing and communicating in their app-specific community, walled off from the rest of the enterprise.
But wait – weren’t information and knowledge silos the very thing social software should help us remove at our companies?
Don’t get me wrong. I think Chatter is really cool… for those few companies who have every employee on Salesforce.com. But for most companies, the real value of social software rests in surfacing information and events from all their company’s various systems, and pulling that into a central stream where all of their employees, not just those housed in the sales and support departments, can collaborate, take action, and drive new business opportunities.
We believe we can avoid the fate of information silos by building a “Social Layer” in the enterprise architecture. The social layer will span all employees across all organizational boundaries, and connect them to key enterprise applications beneath it in the architectural stack. We recently introduced Socialtext Connect, which is the beginning of our approach to enabling this Social Layer.
In my next post, I’ll be drilling into some of the architectural approaches to connecting enterprise social software to existing enterprise applications – across application silos – in order to make The Social Layer a reality.