Companies are increasingly turning to enterprise social networking tools for collaboration, project tracking, and knowledge management, according to our InformationWeek Analytics Enterprise 2.0 Applications Vendor Evaluation Survey. But don't think these systems are just knockoffs of Facebook or Twitter. Yes, they offer user profiles and microblogs, but today's enterprise social networking products are built for business, with powerful tools like wikis, document sharing, and community knowledge spaces. Employees can collaborate on projects, find experts within their companies, and partner easily with colleagues on the daily tasks that constitute business operations.
Still, choosing the best system for your company can be a challenge. The market is flush with enterprise-focused social networking startups, such as Socialtext, Jive, and Yammer, looking to win customers with leading-edge features and functions. Meanwhile, the largest technology companies in the world, including Microsoft, IBM, and Cisco Systems, are also playing in this space. But size doesn't always matter: Socialtext and Jive trumped Microsoft and other big rivals in overall performance in our Vendor Evaluation Survey of 619 business technology professionals using or testing enterprise 2.0 products.
Before investing in a social networking product, answer two key questions: What features do you need, and how will you deliver the capabilities? Status updates and profile pages are available on just about every platform, but your company may be more interested in document sharing or wikis. And some products are traditional on-premises software, others live in the cloud, and a few offer both options. Moreover, decide whether you want a product that's closely linked with your other applications, such as SharePoint's tight integration with the Office suite, or if a standalone platform is the best bet.
To help answer those questions, we examined the state of enterprise social networking, cataloged capabilities top products bring to bear, and analyzed criteria IT should use to determine the best fit for their firms.
The Business Side Of Social Networking
Companies are looking to enterprise social networking for a full slate of business value. IT professionals ranked the ability of a social networking product to meet business needs as the No. 1 feature in our InformationWeek Analytics survey--along with data security and authentication. In other words, these products aren't being rolled out just because microblogs are fun, or because it's the in thing to do. Companies want to see a return.
The catch is, to see value from enterprise social networking, employees have to use the tools. And that can be a problem: User adoption is the greatest management challenge IT faces when it comes to social networking, according to our InformationWeek Analytics Social Networking in the Enterprise Survey of 624 business technology professionals at companies using these systems. Thus, one common aspect of nearly all the enterprise social networking tools is a striking similarity to the interfaces of Facebook and Twitter. In this case, familiarity breeds adoption.
Another way to get employees to collaborate within an enterprise social networking system is to integrate it with tools they already depend on. For example, if your employees use Salesforce.com, then Salesforce's Chatter application is a logical pick to add social networking. Similarly, companies that are heavily invested in Microsoft should evaluate the improved social networking capabilities of SharePoint 2010, which includes news feeds and the ability for users to rate content. And nearly every enterprise social networking system provides some form of API and integration method to tie into other enterprise applications.
In addition to feature requirements, know how the social networking platform can be protected and managed. Differentiators to look for include single sign-on and deep analytics that show how employees are collaborating and which features they use most.
Same, But Different
Twitter-style updates and Facebook-like profile pages are at the core of nearly all these products, but there are variations. For instance, in some systems, users can attach documents and other files to an update. Other systems let users embed content, such as documents, images, and videos, so it's viewable directly from the activity stream, which may increase engagement and make it more likely that others will view this content.
Also look for filtering and privacy options within status updates. In a business environment, users won't always want to broadcast their updates to the entire company--and the entire company probably won't want to receive them. Some products can direct status updates only to select communities, groups, or individuals. Thus, a development team working on a new application can keep its members updated on progress without cluttering the message feeds of other groups.
Profile pages, in which employees can post content such as contact details, professional interests, and appropriate personal information, also can vary widely in functionality. In some systems these are simply static listings of basic contact data. However, in the best systems, they are highly dynamic pages that show everything a user is doing, from status updates, to content, to areas of expertise. Socialtext and Microsoft SharePoint 2010 do a very good job with profile pages; both platforms let users provide lots of details on their activities and the content they're creating and sharing.
Social Networking Everywhere
As with other business applications, enterprise social networking products are increasingly available as mobile apps. This makes good sense because these tools can make it much easier for employees to stay connected to projects and tasks while on the road.
Mobile readiness is one area where there's still a lot of differentiation among the products. Some have native mobile apps for access to core features, such as the activity feed. For example, Yammer and Salesforce Chatter both have apps for iPhones and BlackBerrys that let users view status updates from colleagues and adjust their statuses while on the go. However, other products have no native mobile apps. Instead, they rely on a standard browser interface, which often isn't optimized for small screens. Use of HTML 5 to improve mobile access is on the radar of many vendors, but is still limited in use.
Enterprise social networking applications are maneuvering to become complete communications portals for users, in part to make these platforms indispensable to companies. This has led to the inclusion of multiple forms of direct communication, including email and integrated chat. An emerging feature in social networking systems is video and voice integration, often via Skype. Given Microsoft's recent acquisition of the application, vendors and customers may be less enthusiastic about relying on Skype to provide live voice and video. At present, however, Skype will remain the most common option for live communications in social networking products.
Some vendors are also building in integration with full Web conferencing systems, which can be valuable for initiating and managing meetings, presentations, and training. Cisco Quad, which is being revamped through a collaboration with EMC's Documentum, comes integrated with Cisco's WebEx Web conferencing service to make it simple to engage in conferencing.
Managing The Social Network
Administrative features are another area where capabilities in enterprise social networks can vary, from very basic user management features to systems that provide deep analytics and the ability to sync with corporate directories.
Analytics can extend the value of a social networking platform. Some products offer very deep analytics geared toward monitoring and gleaning insight from social activities. An early leader in this type of deep social analysis is Socialcast, which can provide data to help administrators see which users are highly valued by other employees, what types of content are being shared or linked to the most, and how important company events are received (or even predicted) by employees. While it's possible to misinterpret this kind of information--lots of status updates doesn't necessarily translate to productivity, for instance--analytics can help detect and replicate effective work processes, find employee expertise, and improve information dissemination.
For many companies, integration with company directories and security systems will fall under the "essentials" category because administrators must be able to enforce authentication and access policies. However, while access control is clearly important, it shouldn't get in the way of enhancing productivity. Thus it's unfortunate that many social networking products make it difficult to extend access to third parties, given that collaboration and communication with partners, consultants, and other external personnel are crucial in today's business environments.
How hard is it to collaborate with outsiders? In some cases, only users with the same email domain as the company can be invited to use the social network. Some systems also completely block Gmail and other Web-based email users. We recommend grilling providers on your short list about their ability to extend product capabilities to users both inside and outside the company.
Another important management consideration for social networking is content management. IT must ensure that content created or stored on the social networking platform can be archived according to compliance and regulatory requirements. Content also should be retrievable by e-discovery systems, because social networking platforms are fair game in litigation.
Pricing is also a concern. In general, software-as-a-service products have a low up-front cost; many vendors charge about $5 per user per month. For an on-premises product such as Jive, prices start around $50,000 and go up based on the number of users and desired features.
Many vendors offer free versions that let IT test basic functions, such as activity feeds and user profiles, but lack deeper administration and integration capabilities. However, these lightweight versions may be good enough for small businesses or even departments within larger companies. IT organizations can also use a free version to pilot the product.
In our public lives, social networking has become commonplace. For many people, it's almost impossible to remember how they stayed connected with friends before Facebook. In the business world, social networking has the same potential to become indispensable--but only if your employees find it a useful business tool. Fortunately, we have a wide field of vendors from which to choose a product that meets our needs.
Become an InformationWeek Analytics subscriber and get our full report, Enterprise Social Network Buyer's Guide.
This report includes 14 pages of action-oriented analysis. What you'll find:
- Features and pricing for 11 products
- Guidance on vendor selection
- Criteria for successful adoption
Jim Rapoza is an editor at Network Computing. Get more details on 11 top contenders in our full buyer's guide. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.