Enterprise Social Chaos

There is plenty of debate and discussion on whether enterprise social network (ESN) technologies create real and measurable value in the enterprise.  If you think enterprise social is a fad, you may want to stop reading because in this post, I assume there is value in bringing social technologies into the enterprise. However, the value realization is contingent upon the industry solving some key challenges that enterprises face today in rolling out social technologies and integrating them with their current business processes.

I help enterprise customers adopt social technologies that drive efficiency into their current processes. Through these engagements I have come to realize the immature state of the enterprise social market, and have developed an appreciation for the challenges these enterprises face in aligning social technologies with business processes.

In this post I discuss these gaps and challenges and the need to develop better solutions and/or standards to address them.

Let’s examine the different ways social technologies can be integrated into business processes. Rawn Shah in this article provides a good overview of integrating social technologies with business processes.  He discusses different models that range from a completely disjoint model (social activity happening completely outside the business processes) to a fully integrated model where business processes are embedded in the social activities and appear in the normal flow of activities. The latter provides the most business value but requires that business processes be redesigned. Given the investment costs to redesign business processes, managers aren’t likely to choose the latter model, at least not now.

With this background, let’s examine the problem of social adoption in the enterprise. There are two angles to this problem:

  • Managers are asking – How can I take advantage of social collaboration across the company without disrupting or redesigning my business processes? 
  • End users are demanding –
    • I need to collaborate in the context of the business process I am in. Don’t ask me to switch tools.
    • As I switch from one business process to another, my collaboration experience should remain seamless and consistent

With the existing set of social technologies, it is quite challenging to meet everyone’s expectations and requirements. Why?

In order to answer that, let’s first take a look at the ESN vendor landscape. There are essentially two types of vendors. The first type consists of pure play ESN vendors vying for wall to wall ESN ownership that aren’t tied to applications. Yammer, Jive and IBM Connections fall into this category. The other type of vendors are business application vendors such as SAP, Salesforce and Oracle who are building application centric social networks – Jam, Chatter and OSN respectively.

Most enterprises today have multivendor business applications in place to run different business processes. If enterprises were to implement social technologies offered by business application vendors, the end result would be fragmented communities and silos with inconsistent user experience. For instance, an account exec who lives in the SalesForce world collaborating with others on opportunity management (using Chatter) can’t collaborate with finance on a PO or invoice in SAP since finance folks are all on SAP Jam.

This defeats the enterprise goal of promoting social collaboration across the company. It also fails to meet user expectation of seamless and consistent collaboration experience across multivendor applications.

If they were to implement pure play ESNs such as Yammer and Jive who take a more user centric view, the resulting solution would still not quite meet user expectations where users want to collaborate in the context of the business process and not outside. Yammer provides Yammer Embed to embed Yammer feeds into existing business applications which mitigates this issue but it can be argued that the resulting solution is still not optimal from a user experience standpoint.

If we take this problem further and include partners and customers, we have another set of challenges to deal with. If Company X partners with 5 other companies, each of which has adopted a different ESN, a Company X employee would need to switch across 5 experiences to successfully collaborate with partner companies.

How do we solve these challenges as social technologies advance in their maturity curve? Social is a fabric that is expected to bring employees, enterprises, partners and customers together.  It is best done using a unified fabric and a consistent experience. The experience should be similar to what we have with email or phone – you don’t switch email systems say from Outlook to Messenger when you communicate to company A vs company B, do you? You don’t use a red phone to call company A and a blue phone to call company B. So why should your social experience be different as you interact with different companies?

In an ideal world, one should be able to use social tool A to invite people who use social tool B into its communities and vice versa. Participation into these communities shouldn’t force anyone to switch tools of their choice.

The real answer lies in interoperability standards. However, given the immaturity of this market and vendors competing to entrench themselves, it will be some time before the pressure from enterprises forces the vendors to come together and define interoperability standards.

OpenSocial and OpenGraph are standards that address different aspects of ESN standardization but to my knowledge there is little interest from ESN vendors to define interoperability and consistency of experience across one network to another.

I am curious to see how the solutions and/or standards emerge to address these challenges and enable enterprises to get the true value of social by having one social platform bring all of their business processes, employees, customers and partners together.

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