Enterprise social networking, at its worst, looks like another way to get buried in data.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

November 30, 2009

6 Min Read

When Salesforce.com unwraps a new product like Chatter, which CEO Marc Benioff likens to Facebook for the enterprise, there are those who think "Super, then I could keep up to date better with what my co-workers are doing." Then there are those who think, "Swell, then instead of losing friends by neglecting Facebook, I could lose my job by not keeping up with a Facebook at work."

Enterprise social networking is gaining interest among CIOs, for a lot of good reasons. People are working in far-flung organizations, trying to keep track of ever-more inputs to their businesses, and worrying about losing opportunities that might come from connecting the right people inside their companies. And there's a dash of consumer-tech envy. Expressing his admiration for Facebook and Twitter at last month's Dreamforce conference, Benioff said that, "Once again we've been eclipsed by the consumer."

The fear, though, comes from a very real risk of employees being overloaded, in a way that's different than the generic information overload with which we’ve long wrestled. The new risk is something more targeted--something like "data feed overload," though you can probably offer a better term for it. People get automated feeds from the human resource app to approve vacations, the purchasing app, the travel app, each of them calling for a specific action. They get updates every time a collaboration wiki to which they've subscribed is updated, and they have a dashboard of key performance indicators. All that information comes with an expectation that if it can be delivered, you must be aware of it and monitoring it for problems.

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Enterprise social networking could mean one more source for data feed overload. Salesforce's site promises that "with Chatter, you'll stay on top of everything that's happening in your company with real-time updates on people, groups, documents, and your application data." It's a point I've made before: The risk comes when collaborating, and monitoring the collaboration, becomes a job requirement itself.

Enterprise social networking is not a fool's errand. There's a power that businesses are harnessing here, power that the likes of Sharepoint and SocialText and others are well along on delivering, and that Chatter promises to join when it's released next year. Where we end up, though, probably won't look all that much like Facebook. More likely, it'll come from another feature that Chatter promises--the ability for developers to embed those social media features in their applications. That's where social networking gets more focused, and powerful, for businesses.

I spoke recently with Dan Matthews, CTO of the ERP company IFS, about his ideas for tapping the best of social media in the enterprise through "collaboration in context." It means taking the best of ad hoc collaboration that social media allows, and putting it inside enterprise applications, so the information sharing happens at the point in a process it’s most relevant.

IFS is early on in exploring how it might offer this. In a simple approach, since this summer IFS has offered a "sticky note" feature on several of its enterprise software applications, so employees can share information that doesn't fit in one of the more formal fields on a form, but that may be of use to the next person to look at it. Matthews doesn't pretend it's a revolution, but he likens it to the kind of informal, effective, as-needed information sharing that happened when everyone shared an office, and dealt in physical documents. One company using it had a file that "ended up with a stack of 25 stickies on it," Matthews says. "It's not what we intended, but it shows there's a need for this."

A sticky note doesn't replace the need for formal processes (or for dealing with whatever deeper issues behind needing 25 sticky notes to get something done). But I've wrestled with this problem myself, wanting to convey something as I pass a digital article on to my colleagues but having no field within the publishing app to do so. So I do a horrible thing: send an e-mail to anyone who might touch that file, hoping they'll remember it when they're back in context of that file. "That's half of my mail flow," says Matthews, of such general information messages. "Maybe offloading that out of in boxes will help some."

Research suggests this whole idea of connecting social media and enterprise software faces deep skepticism. According to IFS, a study of 265 manufacturing executives, conducted by a third-party research firm, that asked how important integration of ERP with social media tools will be in selecting ERP in the future found that two-thirds said not very or not at all important. Asked what value it saw in linking ERP with Facebook or LinkedIn, 37% said no potential value at all. The most often-cited benefit was gathering information on your company or competitors, not a particularly sophisticated use.

Why don't IT pros see more promise? It's because most of us take comparisons such as Facebook for the enterprise too literally, Matthews says. "If you just look at this as a slight improvement on the stuff we do use social media for, the stuff in our private life, you might not see the value,' he says. "You think 'How would photo sharing at work benefit us?' Very few people take the leap and think what completely different things might it mean or be used for in a business environment."

That's where we'll end up with enterprise social networking--with something dramatically different than what we’re starting out with today, and something far different than Facebook. My hunch is it'll be less of the singular destination that Facebook is, and more a feature that appears in a lot of what we do.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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