Lithium Technologies has always positioned itself as excelling in the customer-facing part of social business, with products for external communities, but it's about to take at least a half-turn inward.
Lithium's plans for an internal community product, or product extension, leaked out in the form of a recording of a November 18 internal sales presentation that an alert reader pointed out on the video sharing website Vimeo. The presentation was belatedly password protected, following my inquiry about it, but Lithium confirmed that it reflects a product introduction targeted for the first quarter of 2012.
This development will change Lithium's positioning versus competitors like Jive Software, which offers both internally and externally focused social software, as well as internal productivity players like Yammer that Lithium has never competed with at all before. However, Lithium's leaders said--both in interviews this week, and in the bootleg video--that it's not as much of a complete about-face as it might seem.
"That was an internal video, not intended for external messaging, covering a new set of features on our product roadmap," Lithium Chief Marketing Officer Katy Keim said in an interview. "This is not a change in strategy. It's a natural extension of what we've been doing." In Lithium's vision, "the catalyst always starts with the customer," and the intent is more to allow conversations that start in a public forum to be further discussed inside the company, in a private forum--still with the ultimate intent of improving customer service and support.
"It is Lithium's view that the walls are coming down between companies and customers. This is not about an employee productivity, document management, or collaboration story, which are very different use cases," Keim said. "Yammer is a great product. It's what we use internally" and offers features like SharePoint integration. "It's not our desire to take on the employee productivity model head-on."
Lithium customers such as National Instruments and Verizon already make use of its social software in a way that bridges internal and external communities, but this will be the first time Lithium has made a concerted effort to build support for internal collaboration into its software, she said.
Lithium's primary business is hosting customer communities, where a company can answer questions and encourage participants to help answer each other's questions, or brainstorm on ideas. It also uses those interactions as a source of social media analytics.
Although Keim downplayed document management as a focus, the sales training session does include an explanation from product manager Izabela Usarek of document management features that will be added, including the ability to upload and download documents and preview them prior to downloading them from the repository. In other words, Lithium will be providing at least a subset of the features found in file collaboration products such as Box. She also mentioned SharePoint integration as a feature on the product roadmap.
Lithium will also add internal collaboration workspaces and microblogging. More than 60 percent of Lithium customers said they had the need for internal social collaboration, according to the sales presentation.
Jim Drill, Lithium's senior vice president of worldwide sales, can be heard on the call getting very excited, given that entire companies have been built around such file sharing capabilities. "I want to make sure people understand the impact, this is huge," he said. At another point, he argues that calling internal collaboration a "feature" minimizes the impact. "This is a hell of a lot more than just a feature--this is a whole new realm of capabilities than what, from my understanding, we never provided in the past."
However, another speaker from the technical team cautions that "we're never going to replicate everything SharePoint does or everything that Box does." Participants on the sales call characterized the new capabilities as "lightweight collaboration," still aimed primarily at front-line sales and marketing employees who need to interact with participants in a public Lithium community.
Even so, Drill argues that if Lithium can provide the 80 or 90 percent of features for social collaboration that companies find most useful, that might be enough to win new customers for internal collaboration uses.
Melissa Parrish, a Forrester Research analyst who has been briefed on Lithium's plans, said she believes the company's story about where it wants to draw the line.
"I can understand why someone might think it would mean they were essentially shifting course," Parrish said. Jive has a strategy of providing support for internal communities and external communities, with the ability to bridge between the two, but she doesn't think that's where Lithium is headed. "In my view, they're adding some features that will allow people in the enterprise to collaborate around issues and content that come from the external community. So it's a little different." Even though Forrester has promoted the idea of a "360-degree social business," the concept has not necessarily taken off in the marketplace, Parrish added. "We don't see a lot of huge enterprises chucking out email and moving to internal social collaboration tomorrow," she said, so there is no compelling reason for Lithium to move into the internal collaboration market.
Jive CEO Tony Zingale cheerfully characterized Lithium's strategy as a desperate move to try to imitate his company's strategy. "They have a decent external community product, but they're the low-price leader from our perspective," he said. Meanwhile, Jive is "the only vendor that provides the ability to bridge internal and external communities," he said, and Lithium is trying to follow suit. "I wish them a lot of luck--they're about five years late."
Zingale suggested the turmoil at the company was reflected in its recent naming of a new CEO, Rob Tarkoff, formerly of Adobe.
Parrish said Zingale's remarks had more to do with the "fierce competition between Jive and Lithium" than with reality, and she doesn't see Lithium as a troubled company. "I don't see this as a last ditch or desperate move at all."
Rather, Lithium's story that it is adding internal collaboration features in response to customer demand rings true, Parrish said. "I heard a couple of stories about that from their customers before I heard it from Lithium."
Social media are generating tons of data, but that data only becomes truly valuable when examined in context. Attend the virtual Enterprise 2.0 event Social Analytics: The Bridge To Business Value, and learn how social analytics will provide the bridge to unlocking business value. It happens Feb. 16.