Vendors including Microsoft, Google and Cisco are rolling out social networking offerings with the added security and IT control needed for the enterprise. But will enterprises use the technology? Read on for an overview of available and coming products and services.
More than half of US enterprises will use microblogging by 2012, according to Gartner. By 2014 social networking tools will replace e-mail as the primary form of communication for 20 percent of business users, the analyst firm said.
Enterprise social networking has the potential to improve decision-making agility, streamline the flow of communication within an organization, and greatly improve the discoverability of both internal experts and sources of vital information. Unlike consumer social networking services, enterprise offerings promise to provide these benefits with security and policy-based customizability.
Criticized by some as yet another information stream to challenge already-overwhelmed users, enterprise social networking software and services could instead replace existing and less efficient forms of communication, including some in-person meetings and e-mail. For some organizations, they could replace intranets altogether.
Solutions in this category span a very wide range, from minimal microblogging-centric services like Yammer, Microsoft OfficeTalk, and Google Buzz for enterprises to full-blown communication and collaboration suites, including Socialtext, Cisco Quad, and IBM Lotus Connections.
Here’s what you need to know about how these solutions differ, what each offers your company and what you should be thinking about in preparation for the coming new world of enterprise social networking.
Yammer is a Twitter-like social micro-blogging service based on the “freemium model,” which means that it’s free at the low end, and costs $3 or $5 per user per month for Silver and Gold packages. Yammer creates separate networks for each organization, and the user’s e-mail address domain determines whether access is allowed to each specific network.
As on Twitter, Yammer users can post short “status updates” with links, and reply to the updates of others. Branding of the user company is displayed prominently on the page. Communities allow limited participation by approved partners and other groups with which a company might want to communicate.
Microsoft is testing a social micro-blogging service called OfficeTalk in a closed trial. Functionally, OfficeTalk is similar to Yammer, offering a 140-character post limit, user profiles, and search. Each user has access to two feeds: one for co-worker posts, and the other for official company broadcast messages. Like Twitter, OfficeTalk takes advantage of hashtags, keywords that enable easy searches based on subject.
OfficeTalk is unlikely to ship as a stand-alone product. Microsoft hasn’t announced when or even whether OfficeTalk will be released. But it’s likely to be built into one or more other products, such as SharePoint or Outlook Social Connector or even as a standard part of Outlook.
Google Buzz, another popular social micro-blogging environment for consumers, is being re-tooled for enterprise use, according to Google. The company announced in February that it would soon make a special version of the offering available to businesses and schools “with added features for sharing” within an organization.
The current version of Buzz is roughly similar to Twitter, but without the 140-character post limit and with good support for threaded conversations. Google Buzz has an open architecture, so it’s reasonable to assume that data-driven applications could be built into it for enterprise use.
Buzz’s potential to replace meetings, e-mails, blog posts, and intranets is far greater than Yammer’s or OfficeTalk’s, largely due to its ability to handle long posts and threaded messages.
Socialtext, made by a company of the same name, provides cloud-based enterprise social networking. Socialtext offers blogs and micro-blogs, document sharing and collaboration, wikis, and other integrated tools.
Socialtext enables companies to set up “channels,” which are broad topic areas for microblogging. Users can subscribe to various channels, and also tag their own posts to show up in specific channels.
Socialtext Desktop is a PC application that accesses the cloud-based data and services, but the software can also be used in a browser.
Socialtext also has user dashboards made up of OpenSocial widgets. OpenSocial is a set of social networking APIs created by a consortium of companies led by Google.
Cisco Quad is an enterprise social networking suite, currently in beta and due on various platforms starting later this year in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand and elsewhere a year after that. The core social networking features of Quad are roughly similar to Facebook or Twitter, but with strong security and policy control.
Quad enables microblogging that can be posted internally on the Quad system, or externally to Twitter. Companies can enforce external posting policies using rules that automatically filter outgoing posts.
Quad features a wide range of other communications and productivity applications, including a calendar viewer, RSS reader, VoIP application, videoconferencing and instant messaging.
Users can create “communities” — ad-hoc teams — or project-based workspaces where co-workers can collaborate and share documents.
Cisco claims that Quad can be integrated into a wide range of Cisco Unified Communications solutions and with Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint, as well as other widely used enterprise tools. It can also be integrated into Notes, Sametime, Microsoft Office, Outlook, and SharePoint, RIM Blackberry, and other major business applications.
IBM Lotus Connections
IBM Lotus Connections is one of the few currently shipping enterprise social networking solutions. Like Cisco Quad, Connections seeks to integrate Facebook-like social networking functionality with a wide range of other communications tools, including blogs and wikis.
IBM Lotus Connections enables users to create “Communities” where teams or departments can collaborate on documents. A content library called “Files” enables revision management of documents worked on by multiple users.
Connections supports RSS and ATOM, and provides an API for extending functionality or integrating into existing systems.
IBM is planning a new version of the suite called IBM Lotus Connections Next, which the company claims will bring enterprise social networking to a powerful new level. One touted feature is that the system will automatically recommend both people and content for users based on what they’re working on, and also based on a user ranking system. These features take advantage of “social analytics,” which is business intelligence software for social streams. Connections Next also promises Quad-like content moderation to keep sensitive information off public social networks and blogs.
The suite will eventually evolve into something called Project Vulcan, which IBM believes will be a ground-breaking, comprehensive collaborative social networking platform.
How To Decide
The decision-making process for evaluating, choosing and deploying social networking solutions is complex because several of the strongest contenders are not yet available.
All enterprise social networking products offer microblogging. The first decision is to decide whether you need more than that. Microblogging will likely show up in future upgrades of widely deployed tools like Microsoft Exchange and Office within the next year.
One major consideration is whether your organization is already heavily invested in Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus software, or Cisco communications solutions. Embracing the social networking solution of the dominant provider of your communications suite may appeal to decision-makers in your organization.
Regardless of which path your company takes — minimal microblogging or full-blown social communication — and regardless of which company you seek out as the vendor, it makes sense to begin evaluating the move as soon as possible. Enterprise social networking is more than just a buzzword. It’s likely to usher in a new era of business communication that may affect your organization’s business agility, efficiency, and ultimately, its bottom line.
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