The Facebook imperative for enterprise software

Posted by Dion Hinchcliffe @ 6:57 pm

Marc Benioff, CEO of, the well-known CRM and cloud computing company — and now soon-to-be social software vendor — wrote a guest post on TechCrunch late last week making the case for “why enterprise software should take its cues from Facebook and become more social.”

It’s a premise that’s been offered up countless times since Web 2.0 became a widespread trend and it will probably be invoked many more times. Yet the urgency is becoming more pronounced as the latest social tools appear seemingly everywhere in both our personal and work lives, often excepting of course our all-too-often staid corporate intranets. “Just ask any beleaguered CIO” about the growing internal demand for social software lamented recently.

Readers of this blog won’t be too surprised to discover my general agreement with Benioff’s position. But there will undoubtedly be a large contingent of those involved in enterprise IT today that will ask, “So what?” Will making enterprise applications more social really make major difference to enterprises in a meaningful way? Does adding social features to business software truly make “people more productive and businesses more competitive“, to quote Benioff? If the answers are in the affirmative though, then these are indeed important questions.

Will Social Computing and Enterprise 2.0 Finally Bridge the IT/Business Divide?

In these times of economic uncertainty and global transformation, I would put forth that it’s worth determining ground truth about one of the most significant generational changes of our time, social computing. In fact, we are currently witnessing a major revolution in communications on many fronts today including 1) mass simultaneity, 2) potent next-generation mobile platforms, and 3) pervasive rich media. Added to this, and not the least of these developments, is that today’s social computing approaches are fundamentally changing the way we work, including even why we work at all.

Ultimately any determination if there is an enterprise “Facebook imperative” will matter because our businesses depend upon software in all its countless forms in a thousand different ways in order to function at all. Besides being critical to day-to-day operation of business, software itself is in the midst of major transition due to far more than just social media. Cloud computing, green technology, the continuing impact of open source, and the rapidly rising centrality of mobile computing platforms are just some of larger issues that are being felt acutely in the industry right now.
Should enterprises even be social?

The first subject that still comes up in any high level discussion of enterprise social software is whether the workplace should be social at all. Facebook may have over 400 million registered accounts at the moment and most of the people in the developed world might use it in their personal lives on a regular basis, but is this a type of software that should be strategically situated in most businesses today? Just because enterprise IT can be social, does that mean it should be?

This point is at the very crux of the question when I talk to business and IT leaders about enterprise social software, even as it continues to bear down on the business world in a seemingly inexorable fashion. Let’s also not forget that virtually everyone in business already has older social tools like e-mail (which is certainly social, just not to the same degree as consumer social media and Enterprise 2.0 applications.) In other words, today’s social software is really just a new level of capability that is part of a long process of innovation that first started with the advent of computer networks.

Related: Fixing IT in the cloud computing era

Unfortunately, the answer to whether social software belongs in the enterprise is a big, unsatisfactory, “It depends.” It’s clear enough that social interaction is at the heart of so much of what we do in the workplace, ranging from team meetings and conference calls to e-mail and any kind of directed communication in the workplace. But is this social interaction really much different than the social interaction in our personal lives? The answer is that very often it is, though of course that’s not always the case. Technology has assisted us for a hundreds of years when it comes to communication and collaboration, but this is the new discussion: There do appear to be deeper and unique business models around social computing and the enterprise.

The simple fact is that businesses are a social construct and not in any kind of theoretical or abstract way. They are command-and-control hierarchies with the goal to return value to their owners by providing valuable products and services to their customers. And when fundamentally new social models are introduced to this environment, we are beginning to learn that new and non-trivial opportunities can be reached by the organizations that employ them. And it’s the nature of what exactly can happen with social business that provides some insight into whether or not a Facebook imperative genuinely exists.

Finally, as I observed last week in my post Ten Enterprise 2.0 Technologies to Watch, the addition of a social layer to enterprise products is already starting to happening from companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Salesforce. The Facebook imperative is already being felt.
Five benefits of making enterprise IT social

Based on what we can see today, adding social to enterprise IT in a strategic way can have the following outcomes:

1. Social software can tap deeply into emergent human capacity at any scale, in any location. The largest IT systems in the world used to be enterprises, but this has been eclipsed by social software on the Web and the hundreds of millions of users using services such as Facebook, YouTube, and other major sites. Social software now has the ability to elicit participation, build network effects, and engage with virtually any quantity of people while simultaneously reducing complexity and extracting more value from the network than it provides.
2. Social business models introduce potent new motivations for contributions to an organization’s objectives. I’ve explored open business methods in depth in the past, but open source and Web 2.0 applications demonstrate that there are often much better reasons for creating value for other organizations that merely financial. This is actively remaking the business landscape, collapsing costs, and greatly expanding the creative and productive capacity for organizations willing to engage in social business models.
3. Social IT can collect and aggregate corporate knowledge for reuse and leverage like few other methods. Just as Web 2.0 at its core is about harnessing collective intelligence, Enterprise 2.0 is about the same thing (unleashing the human ingenuity and insight of workers), but aimed at business objectives and with numerous associated benefits.
4. Social systems engage with, react to, and respond on a shorter time scale than most other modes of business interaction. While all digital communications are in a sense immediate, social software is more effective in terms of its general ability to spread change rapidly and creating ripple effects across large numbers of workers. Mobile devices and pervasive connectivity helps with this but social networks along with smartphones are changing the rules of the game as Benioff pointed out.
5. Social software naturally breaks down barriers, silos, and tribal boundaries while maximizing inbound participation. The viral nature of social software encourages relationship capital to be built (via the social graph) and cultivated over time. Subsequent worker activity in an enterprise’s social IT systems spreads information and ideas much farther than the standard sphere of influence of normal IT systems, which are primarily limited to the users directly engaged in them.

These are pretty compelling propositions by any qualitative or quantitative measure, yet the evidence is still too slim for many traditional organizations despite widespread enterprise penetration by the tools themselves, albeit mostly tactically at the moment. Let’s also not forget that for most people, social software equates to their day-to-day consumer experience with Facebook or Twitter. I would argue that the case can be made that enterprise social software is even more powerful than its consumer cousin, and while very similar in some ways, can actually create more value in the hands of capable workers determined to employ them for business effect.