Where Salesforce Communities are outward-facing to partners and customers, Company Communities are inward-facing to employees. Both types of Communities are built on the Salesforce Chatter collaborative platform combined with the content-management, process-management and application development and deployment strengths of the Force.com platform.
Company Communities go beyond Chatter collaboration and networking to give employees social and mobile access to content such as HR policies, travel guidelines, Force.com-based custom apps and AppExchange partner apps.
"Employees can get the answer to pretty much any question right on their mobile device -- except for the information on their corporate intranet, which is trapped on a website circa 1999," said Jim Sinai, Salesforce.com' platform product marketing executive, in a phone interview.
[ Want more on the social, mobile replacement for portals? Read Salesforce Communities: Portal Killers? ]
Nice pitch, but Salesforce.com seems to be forgetting all the corporate collaboration platforms adopted over the last decade. So what about the IBM Connections, Microsoft Yammer, Jive and other such systems?
"The employee social networks are great for helping peers to connect to each other, but where they're not full intranet replacements is in connecting to critical business information," said Sinai. "Salesforce has a platform where customers are building applications, so we're in a unique position to help customers bring everything together."
We'll get to all those apps in a moment, but another potential overlap for Company Communities is Human Capital Management (HCM) and talent-management suites that combine multiple applications. These come in cloud-based varieties, like IBM Kenexa, Oracle Taleo, SAP SuccessFactors, Workday and Salesforce.com's own lightweight Work.com performance management system. On-premises versions of these systems are also still selling, with Oracle PeopleSoft and SAP HCM being leading examples. What about these systems?
"A lot of the applications that the HR vendors are going after are things that employees don't need to access on a daily basis," Sinai remarked. "We're going to integrate with all those applications and make them available with a single sign on, but they're not core apps that employees need to get their job done."
So just what apps might be exposed through a Company Community? They fall into three categories, says Sinai. First, there are custom apps that you might build on Force.com, like a help-desk ticking applications or expense-approval apps or vendor-management apps for bring new suppliers onboard. Second, there are AppExchange apps built on Force.com and offered by third-party vendors, such as Concur (travel and expense management), ServiceMax (field service management), and DocuSign (document approval workflows).
Finally there are third-party apps not built on AppExchange, like Workday and other HCM or ERP systems. Here Salesforce offers multiple integration options including SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language), the OAuth protocol, Salesforce.com's own Canvas approach to Force.com platform integration (which will be released next week) and standard API integration.
A big part of Salesforce.com's pitch is that it has the best options for mobile delivery. It's promising to aggregate all the apps and information you need, give it a single sign-on and quickly expose it through smartphones and tablets. This is clearly appealing, and the company certainly does have a mobile leg up on home-grown websites, SharePoint-based intranets and collaboration and HCM vendors that tend to focus only on the information that they manage.
The two remaining questions are, is it any easier to expose these apps through Company Communities than it would be through an intranet or collaboration platform, and is the Company Community compelling enough to either chuck or overlap with existing options including the intranets and collaboration system you've been trying to stretch into comprehensive resources?
"From a development and support perspective, I think we're going to see a lot of changes and evolution over the next 12 to 18 months," said analyst Rebecca Wettemann of Nucleus Research. "Having fewer code bases to maintain, applications to support and development environments to learn is better for IT."
Companies are seeing significant ROI by integrating collaboration, content-sharing and applications on the Force.com platform, said Wettemann, but she also noted that Microsoft is investing heavily in Yammer. Another vendor tackling this problem in a novel way is Infor, which recently introduced its Ming.le application.
"Infor and Salesforce are the two vendors that have instrumented their collaboration to handle not just human beings or case records, but also devices within a network being able to contribute information and content," Wettemann said.
The blend of humans, processes and devices gets into the promising "Internet of things" vision, but now we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Salesforce is pitching Company Communities as intranet killers. So the most obvious target is companies that truly haven't tried to move beyond the 1990s and primitive internal-facing Web sites.
It may be that many or even most companies have tried to do better. But it's better for Salesforce to present Company Communities as the replacement for the oldest technologies and not as something that will make people wonder why they spent money on all those collaboration technologies.