Mark Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com, caused a stir by asking the question “Why isn’t all enterprise software like Facebook?”. The context was the launch of Salesforce Chatter which is intended to be a collaboration platform built into the Salesforce.com product/service. His overall conclusion is that enterprise software should be more like Facebook and whether one agrees or not the post has certainly raised the profile of the debate on the place of social tools within the enterprise.
Before one can discuss whether software “like Facebook” is appropriate for the enterprise we first need to understand what “like Facebook” means. Mr Benioff focuses on two key themes, ease of use and immediacy. With ease of use he makes the very valid point that most enterprise systems are dauntingly difficult to use, often requiring lengthy training, which reduces uptake and activity. This contrasts poorly with Facebook which, by necessity, has had to be usable by anyone without training.
There is surely no argument with a vision of making any software easy to use, especially where the goal is to have non-expert users actively participating and contributing. The Facebook model is certainly a good starting point here although adding in the flexibility,integrations and security that an enterprise requires means the model needs to be adapted significantly. Once you delve into the deeper functionality of Facebook (for example the infamous privacy controls) it is clear that even they are struggling with the balance between usability and flexibility. Ease-of-use, nevertheless, should be a goal in all systems design.
The second theme, immediacy, is very interesting and offers benefits but also risks to the enterprise. One of the key innovations introduced by Facebook was the News Feed – a continually updated stream of information about the thoughts and activities of other network members. From Facebook’s perspective this was the hook that got users logging back in. There was a great review of social networks as part of the BBC Virtual Revolution series and what was interesting is the way in which the networks, and in particular the news feeds, have changed (or perhaps matched) the ways in which people interract and consume information.
Given that Facebook is essentially built around the News Feed it is not surprising that most systems offering social networking capabilities to the enterprise also incorporate some form of News Feed. Certainly this is a key part of Salesforce Chatter (and a feed exists in the Employer Connections platform). The vision is that this allows serendipitous and immediate discovery of key information (sales won, projects completed etc). The Salesforce vision extends to integrating information from other systems into the Feed, for example if someone updates a document.
On the positive side it can be argued that this way of delivering information better suits the way the human brain works, grazing for information and switching from task to task. It certainly benefits an advertising-driven business model, compelling users to frequently access the site to get their “fix” of information. In the enterprise context, however, there are disadvantages; either the distraction of people from their core activities or, for infrequent users, the risk of key information being missed altogether.
At Employer Connections our opinion is that an enterprise social network needs to use public social networking concepts whilst augmenting these to deliver enhanced business processes and performance across many different types of community. For example, tying social functionality into defined business processes provides compelling reasons to use the system without a “just-in-case” mindset. Prioritised activity summaries enable users to see at a glance the important issues they need to address without feeling the need to log in every half hour.
The public social networks demonstrate the potential value of communities and engagement and this value can be realised within the enterprise to exciting effect. The challenge is to deliver these benefits with a clear business-driven focus, in a nutshell to be efficient with social. Yes, enterprise software should be like Facebook but only where this delivers clear-sighted business value to the enterprise.