Facebook for the Enterprise: Potential or Pipedream?

More vendors are now offering products and services that bring social media into the workplace

With more than 750 million users, Facebook has emerged as the dominant social media platform. People everywhere are using Facebook to share photos, chat with friends, and keep in touch with family members and colleagues across the globe. Despite some legitimate privacy and security concerns—which I won’t get into here—Facebook has paved the way for other social media offerings such as Twitter, FourSquare, Quora, GoWalla and Google+.

Over the last few years, several companies have been working on platforms to bring aspects of social media and social networking into the enterprise. According to a July 2011 social business survey conducted by IDC, 41 percent of survey respondents indicated that they had some sort of social business initiative underway. The IDC report cautioned that the scope, objectives, and maturity of these initiatives varied widely, but the report also stressed that social business software adoption and interest is increasing.

Salesforce.com CEO Mark Benioff—in a guest post last year on the website TechCrunch—urged the enterprise software industry to look to Facebook as a model for how to re-imagine collaboration and communication in the enterprise. “We need to transform the business conversation the same way Facebook has changed the consumer conversation. Market shifts happen in real time, deals are won and lost in real time, and data changes in real time,” Benioff wrote. “Yet the software we use to run our enterprises is in anything but real time. We need tools that work smarter, make better use of new technology (like the mobile devices in everyone’s hands), and fully leverage the opportunities of the Internet.”

A number of companies are trying to do exactly that, but with different philosophies and approaches. Microsoft’s ubiquitous SharePoint reigns as the current king of document and content sharing, but is admittedly weak on social media functionality.  Services such as Yammer and Salesforce Chatter offer some of the functionality of Facebook for internal use; Salesforce Chatter brings Facebook-like social networking functionality to the core Salesforce.com customer relationship management (CRM) Software as a Service (SaaS) platform. Some IT departments have preferred those services for their ease of deployment (both are SaaS offerings) and similarity to existing social media platforms. Convofy is another player in the field, and is trying to find itself a niche in the burgeoning social enterprise space by focusing on integration between existing platforms.

Jive Software has taken a blank-slate approach, focusing more on people engagement than document management.  “We think the best strategy is to design the platform around engaging people, not documents,” said Tim Zonca, Jive’s director of product marketing. “We wanted to be social from the ground up.”

Newsgator’s Social Sites builds on top of SharePoint and adds more social media elements, a strategy that capitalizes on Microsoft’s vast SharePoint installed base. Brad Feld, managing director of the Foundry Group (a venture capital firm that invests in Newsgator), believes that building social media functionality on top of SharePoint is an attractive solution. “Microsoft SharePoint provided an incredible platform for this, both as a technology backbone as well as the broad adoption it has seen throughout large enterprises,” Feld said.

Newsgator CEO J.B. Holston elaborated on his company's Microsoft-centric strategy with Social Sites. “We focused on the Microsoft stack, with SharePoint as the focus but now including all the Office 365 components (Exchange, Office, and Lync, too) because of their ubiquity,” Holston said. “Since we leverage the Microsoft stack fundamentally, our offerings have fundamental search, single profile, security, scalability, and globalization/localization benefits that are magnitudes ahead of the competition. SharePoint alone has over 100 million paid seats worldwide, is Microsoft’s fastest growing server product ever, and has been adding 20,000 seats per day every day for the last five years.”

Other vendors are angling for a piece of the social business market, including IBM with their IBM Connections platform. “We offer three different deployment options: on-premise, hosted (through IBM or IBM partners), and multi-tenant with IBM Lotus Live,” said senior marketing manager for IBM Connections Christopher Lamb. “We also leverage IBM’s expertise with BI to combine social data with analytics. We’re using social analytics and filtering to surface relevant social data in the right context.”

Regardless of the vendor or platform in the burgeoning social business category, one thing is certain: The consumerization of IT is continuing to have an impact on enterprise platform and software adoption, and we’re likely to see more social media features finding their way into our business applications. If that helps companies work faster, collaborate more effectively, and reduce operating costs, it’ll be hard to argue with the trend.

What do you think about bringing social media into the enterprise? Send your advice and suggestions to me via email, or follow me on Twitter @jeffjames3.

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