Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, the well-known CRM and cloud computing company — and now soon-to-be social software vendor — wrote a guest post on TechCrunch late last week making the case for “why enterprise software should take its cues from Facebook and become more social.”
It’s a premise that’s been offered up countless times since Web 2.0 became a widespread trend and it will probably be invoked many more times. Yet the urgency is becoming more pronounced as the latest social tools appear seemingly everywhere in both our personal and work lives, often excepting of course our all-too-often staid corporate intranets. “Just ask any beleaguered CIO” about the growing internal demand for social software lamented CIO.com recently.
Readers of this blog won’t be too surprised to discover my general agreement with Benioff’s position. But there will undoubtedly be a large contingent of those involved in enterprise IT today that will ask, “So what?” Will making enterprise applications more social really make major difference to enterprises in a meaningful way? Does adding social features to business software truly make “people more productive and businesses more competitive“, to quote Benioff? If the answers are in the affirmative though, then these are indeed important questions.
In these times of economic uncertainty and global transformation, I would put forth that it’s worth determining ground truth about one of the most significant generational changes of our time, social computing. In fact, we are currently witnessing a major revolution in communications on many fronts today including 1) mass simultaneity, 2) potent next-generation mobile platforms, and 3) pervasive rich media. Added to this, and not the least of these developments, is that today’s social computing approaches are fundamentally changing the way we work, including even why we work at all.
Ultimately any determination if there is an enterprise “Facebook imperative” will matter because our businesses depend upon software in all its countless forms in a thousand different ways in order to function at all. Besides being critical to day-to-day operation of business, software itself is in the midst of major transition due to far more than just social media. Cloud computing, green technology, the continuing impact of open source, and the rapidly rising centrality of mobile computing platforms are just some of larger issues that are being felt acutely in the industry right now.
Should enterprises even be social?
The first subject that still comes up in any high level discussion of enterprise social software is whether the workplace should be social at all. Facebook may have over 400 million registered accounts at the moment and most of the people in the developed world might use it in their personal lives on a regular basis, but is this a type of software that should be strategically situated in most businesses today? Just because enterprise IT can be social, does that mean it should be?
This point is at the very crux of the question when I talk to business and IT leaders about enterprise social software, even as it continues to bear down on the business world in a seemingly inexorable fashion. Let’s also not forget that virtually everyone in business already has older social tools like e-mail (which is certainly social, just not to the same degree as consumer social media and Enterprise 2.0 applications.) In other words, today’s social software is really just a new level of capability that is part of a long process of innovation that first started with the advent of computer networks.
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Unfortunately, the answer to whether social software belongs in the enterprise is a big, unsatisfactory, “It depends.” It’s clear enough that social interaction is at the heart of so much of what we do in the workplace, ranging from team meetings and conference calls to e-mail and any kind of directed communication in the workplace. But is this social interaction really much different than the social interaction in our personal lives? The answer is that very often it is, though of course that’s not always the case. Technology has assisted us for a hundreds of years when it comes to communication and collaboration, but this is the new discussion: There do appear to be deeper and unique business models around social computing and the enterprise.
The simple fact is that businesses are a social construct and not in any kind of theoretical or abstract way. They are command-and-control hierarchies with the goal to return value to their owners by providing valuable products and services to their customers. And when fundamentally new social models are introduced to this environment, we are beginning to learn that new and non-trivial opportunities can be reached by the organizations that employ them. And it’s the nature of what exactly can happen with social business that provides some insight into whether or not a Facebook imperative genuinely exists.
Finally, as I observed last week in my post Ten Enterprise 2.0 Technologies to Watch, the addition of a social layer to enterprise products is already starting to happening from companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Salesforce. The Facebook imperative is already being felt.
Five benefits of making enterprise IT social
Based on what we can see today, adding social to enterprise IT in a strategic way can have the following outcomes: