Tony Byrne, founder of The Real Story Group advisory service and an occasional contributor to the BrainYard, provided a tutorial on evaluating and selecting these products Monday as part of one of the pre-conference workshops for Enterprise 2.0 Boston, a UBM TechWeb event. In the process, he also gave a somewhat skeptical assessment of the value of Microsoft's rumored acquisition of Yammer, which seems likely to be announced this week.
The basic vocabulary of social software field can be misleading, he warned. "Many vendors who label themselves the same way actually do very different things." For starters, it's important to understand the distinction between collaboration and social networking within an organization, even though those terms are often used interchangeably, Byrne said.
[ See our special report: Enterprise 2.0 Boston 2012.]
"When we collaborate, we work jointly on an activity, toward a common goal," Byrne said. "When we network, it's really about connecting with others for its own sake – it's about the relationship. Also, this is about humanizing the digital experience. Much of our software, to date, has assumed we were autonomous robots working in a cube." Collaboration and networking can be very complementary – for example, networking often introduces people who will later become collaborators, he said. As one member of the audience put it, the difference between collaboration and networking is the difference between actively working together versus putting yourself in a position to work well with someone in the future.
What workers really want is an environment that allows them to switch smoothly between those two modes of interaction, Byrne said, but most products today are not equally strong in both. For example, Microsoft SharePoint is a strong (although not perfect) collaboration environment but a weak social networking tool. Yammer, in contrast, is almost all about social networking, even though it has expanded its features list, he said. "Yammer is fundamentally a microblogging program that happens to have a few other services."
Byrne recently blogged that Yammer is unlikely to become a tightly integrated extension to SharePoint. Rather, "it will be another product to purchase, and a very different architecture for customers to understand," he wrote.
How Yammer will be introduced into the Microsoft product line depends partly on which division of Microsoft will absorb the product. If Microsoft adds Yammer to the Microsoft Office group that oversees SharePoint, it could signal that Microsoft recognizes that the SharePoint 2013 edition about to go into a limited release for testing will not deliver enough social pizazz to impress the market. Although Microsoft's cloud-based Office 365 was supposed to give Microsoft a way to bring software improvements to market at something more like the speed of social networking, but perhaps that, too, is falling short of expectations, Byrne said. However, he wonders whether the "trivial integration" to SharePoint Yammer has delivered is a good sign for organizations that have made a commitment to SharePoint and are looking for a good way to extend it with social functionality.
Yammer and SharePoint are just a couple of the many collaboration products that come from very different roots, yet are trying to converge on common customer requirements. Yammer is a distinct software product, which means getting it working is relatively quick and painless. SharePoint is a platform, subject to great customization but not as quick or easy to implement, particularly for social collaboration.
Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle are the three vendors Byrne considers to be taking a true platform approach to collaboration and social software. "With enough time, money, and painkillers, you can get them to do anything," he said, making these good choices for system integrators to deliver custom collaboration environments for their clients. Before you start customizing, however, each starts out with a different strength. SharePoint lends itself to knowledgebase and project collaboration, while IBM Connections is best at supporting employee communities and locating knowledge within the organization – a result of its origin as an internal collaboration tool in IBM's knowledge-centric enterprise. Oracle, meanwhile, has churned through several iterations of its collaboration strategy and is now focusing on providing a social layer on top of existing Oracle products and middleware, Byrne said.