Enterprise Social Networks: Must-Have Features Guide
Confused by the bevy of vendors promising enterprise social nirvana? Tour the core capabilities that you need when implementing social-focused tools in the workplace.
Organizations are increasingly looking to apply the social networking model to their internal collaboration, workflow, and general management practices. Organizations can implement enterprise social business systems that foster communication using many of the same features found on Facebook and Twitter, including news feeds, the ability to find and follow people, comments, and photo sharing. Inside the organization, sharing also comes into play for documents, reports, tasks and application activities. In addition, vendors are weaving social capabilities into all sorts of enterprise applications.
No matter what you use or how you integrate it, there are some basic things that you must have when implementing social-focused tools in the workplace.
First and foremost, you must get people to use the system, which means the platform you choose should have a familiar interface and/or one that is easy to learn to use. Most people these days are familiar with Facebook and Twitter, and many enterprise social business vendors are incorporating the look and feel of those platforms in their own wares.
Workers need to be eased into new modes of interaction. When you use email or even the phone, you are selecting the recipients of your message. With social, on the other hand, you are generally broadcasting to larger groups or the entire company. It may be that the people who respond to help you with something are exactly whom you expected. But it may also be that someone you've never met before responds with a knowledge base and experience you didn't know existed in the organization. Rich user profiles, with the ability for tagging, are another way that users can effectively connect with users, and, when the time comes to narrow the scope of conversation, group creation capabilities are very important.
Organizations should also look for the ability to easily develop apps for any enterprise social business platform they choose, as well as the ability to hook into directory and other existing IT systems. Especially for companies with extensive sales forces, it will be important to look for robust mobile capabilities--basically, anything you do in the office you should be able to do on any mobile platform in use among your workforce.
Once users get up and running with the new enterprise social business platform, there will be a whole lot of data being generated. You want to make sure that you can capture, mine, analyze and visualize that data to make more strategic business decisions moving forward.
Of course, organizations should be looking to wrap tight but flexible security around all of this knowledge and collaboration.
On the pages that follow, we detail some enterprise social networking must-haves and show examples of the key features as they are manifested in actual products.
Most of these features exist in multiple products, although each has its own twist. We do not mean to imply that any of these products are "best" by virtue of being chosen to illustrate a particular feature, although we did ask the vendors to tell us which features they thought distinguished them from the rest.
There are several ways in which internal social networking platforms are different from--and much more than--Facebook for the enterprise, but many of them incorporate a look and feel similar to that of familiar external social networks, including Facebook and Twitter. This allows end users to feel almost immediately comfortable using a new internal platform, which should result in early, widespread, and enthusiastic adoption--key to any collaboration platform's success. NewsGator's Lookout interface combines elements of Facebook and Twitter, but also offers functionality that will be important specifically for internal business use.
With business social networking platforms, profiles perform an important function. They allow employees to describe their skills and experience, which in turn allow colleagues looking for internal expertise to identify the right people for the right projects. Check to make sure that user profiles can be easily created and updated, and are rich and discoverable. SocialText profiles include the kind of information needed to find the people you are looking for--whether you know them or not--to help you with a project.
IT pros should be able to integrate enterprise social business into the company's directory, providing appropriate access controls and rights. As shown here, VMware's Socialcast enables administrators to add new users and keep their data in sync with external user management systems via single sign-on (SSO) or any LDAP-compatible directory.
Security is one of the key concerns of organizations when it comes to social networking. It will be important to ensure that the level of security a platform provides meets industry and regulatory standards, not to mention general best practices. SAP's StreamWork platform incorporates security mechanisms and controls, including multiple firewalls, data encryption, and password protection.
Make sure that any enterprise social business system you evaluate provides monitoring, measurement, and analysis capabilities. Jive Fathom, part of the Jive Social Business Platform, enables users to listen to conversations on the social web, analyze trends, and engage in dialogue, then share insights and collaborate on responses.
To make sure that an enterprise social business system will meet your organization's needs, develop a checklist of all the collaboration features the company will need not just now but for the near future. The extent to which a vendor can meet these needs will help determine the best platform for your organization. Yammer, recently acquired by Microsoft, boasts a variety of collaboration tools, including Online Now, which enables users to see who is available and instantly start a discussion with one or more co-workers.
The ability to upload, share, and collaborate on documents will be important for many organizations. Does the system provide this functionality, and, if so, what security features are in place? To what extent can users collaborate and comment on files? Can the files be tagged and searched on? Content collaboration platform Huddle lets users securely share files with colleagues. Individuals can be invited to workspaces and access content only if they have been approved. In this way, IT managers and compliance officers can record who is accessing content, when they accessed it, and what they are doing with it.
Most systems will let you create groups, but they vary in terms of the level of capability. Evaluate the ease with which (and the extent to which) enterprise social business systems let you form groups. The cloud-based Clearvale enables businesses to create separate social networks for groups but manage them together as a whole.
Once a system has been deployed, companies will want to extend and customize it. Can custom apps be created for the platform? With what? What level of expertise will app development require? Is there any kind of community development capability? Apps for Podio, now part of Citrix Systems, can be built without extensive technical skills. According to Podio, more than 45,000 apps have been built or modified by Podio users.
Mobile access is going from important to essential. Can the collaboration system be accessed from mobile devices? Which mobile operating systems does it support? Is there any loss of functionality when accessing the platform from a mobile device? How well does the user interface adapt to each platform?
Appian says its platform, which combines aspects of social and business process management software, lets developers write apps that can be deployed on any platform. Here you see Appian on the iPhone, showcasing the platform's ability to take business action (approve a purchase request) directly from a social interface.
Salesforce.com's Chatter includes a feature called Influence that helps users efficiently identify the right people to help them collaborate better. This type of feature--which rewards participation--is also a great motivator for getting people to actively participate in internal social networking initiatives.
One of the surest ways to gain wide user adoption and ultimately acceptance is to integrate your enterprise social business platform with existing platforms and processes. IBM Connections Mail allows users to access enterprise email, calendar, and business tasks from inside the Connections platform, further unifying the collaboration experience from a single location.
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