Can ‘Social Business’ tools bring business benefit?

18th July 2011

Business use of social networking could go through the roof if new ‘social business’ tools fulfill their potential, says FSN writer Lesley Meall.

 

Social networking tools have had a high profile in recent pro-democracy protests and the Facebook generation can’t function without them, and although they’ve been a little less fast to catch on in the world of work, business use could be about to explode. The enhanced information sharing, collaboration, and interactivity of Web 2.0 led to Enterprise 2.0 which is morphing into ‘social business’ (as social media are increasingly called when applied to work), and software developers are increasingly exploiting the associated technologies to improve the accessibility, integration, and usability of business systems. 

‘Social software improves the connectedness of workers, promotes collaboration and helps capture informal knowledge,’ says Tom Eid, research vice president with the analyst Gartner, which reports a growing demand for ‘environments’ where people can connect, create, share, and find other people and information relevant to their work. ‘Social software excels in business contexts that leave room for individuals to interact informally, brainstorm, explore ideas, and encourage or challenge peers,’ says Eid, and business value can be derived from the associated ‘customer intimacy, product and service excellence, operational effectiveness and innovation’. 

Developers of systems such as business intelligence (BI), customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) are increasingly using social media and related technologies to improve the accessibility, integration and usability of their products. The most visible manifestation, so far, has been the provision of browser-based access, and its availability from multiple fixed and mobile devices, but ‘social business’ already goes way beyond this, and will go further in the future as more developers add social functionality to their systems, and third party developers make their ‘social business’ products more enterprise-friendly. 

Epicor has been among the pioneers, building Web 2.0 technologies into various releases of its ERP Epicor 9, over the past few years, in. By allowing RSS feeds on ERP data, it enables users to get real time status on events, without the need for analytics; by utilising Microsoft Unified Communications Solutions to bring context sensitive Instant Messaging (IM) and presence to ERP, it makes it easier for users to work together collaboratively; by using wikis to build a business glossary around key enterprise performance indicators – which have been tagged, and can therefore be searched – it makes information easier to find. 

Now it is developing what it calls Activity Stream Management. ‘The activity streams popularised by consumer apps such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to address the massive flows of information business users face,’ says Ray Wang, CEO and principal analyst with Constellation Research Group, by providing them with a means of sharing targeted real time information. But it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed by activity streams, so as Wang observes, if they are to deliver the right sort of aggregated information, keep it contextual and relevant, and stop the noise becoming a confusing deluge, effective filtering is a necessity. 

By embedding more collaborative social elements within Epicor 9 and extending them through the features of Microsoft SharePoint 2010, Epicor aims to make activity streams easier to manage, so that users can get access to just the information they need to react, respond to and resolve business matters. Activity Stream Management will, for example, make it easier for users to subscribe to and follow all of the transactions and communications that pertain to a specific customer, part number, user group, or other entity – in much the same way that they might subscribe to content from individuals or organisations on Facebook or Twitter. 

FinancialForce.com has also been a pioneer. It has been exploiting this sort of functionality to improve the way that users of its accounting and finance system collaborate and interact with sales and other parts of the business (for more than a year now), using SalesForce.com’s ‘social business’ platform Chatter, and since January this year, subscribers to SalesForce.com have been able to provide Chatter.com access to all of their employees – not just those with a SalesForce login. So they can all use Chatter.com to collaborate, share files and information: it sends emails and updates about events in an activity stream, and at times and intervals determined by the employee. 

NetSuite has been supporting enterprise social collaboration for some time too, through Qontext, which enables customers to add microblogs and activity streams directly into applications, so that users don't need to leave their primary application if they want to participate in discussions. But NetSuite recently added another string to its ‘social business’ bow. A collaboration and integration with Yammer, an enterprise social system (similar to Chatter), gives NetSuite users a new app, SuiteSocial, which allows them to automatically ‘socialise’ business data for use with social networking and collaboration applications. 

With SuiteSocial, users can follow (not just people, but) records of interest in NetSuite, and as important activities and updates occur, SuiteSocial content is automatically generated which may then be syndicated to an external social stream or feed. The SuiteSocial content is integrated and presented to Yammer users as ‘activity stories’ in Yammer's new Activity Streams (the debut of which coincided with the NetSuite SuiteSocial launch). By importing content from NetSuite, Yammer Activity Streams can provide users with an instant snapshot of NetSuite activity inside Yammer, where they can easily share and discuss these with colleagues.  

There’s a lot going on in this area. SAP also made a recent announcement that its enterprise applications will now integrate with its StreamWork product; this is billed as a ‘collaborative decision making’ solution, which is a little different to the ‘social business’ tools already mentioned in that it is specifically structured to use polls, pro/con tables, SWOT analyses, and similar tools, rather than generalised discussions.

But it could be a third party product that ends up doing for the business world what Facebook has done for personal communication, collaboration and information sharing.

There are various tools (similar to Chatter and Yammer) that offer ways to tie social networking to enterprise applications, including Clearvale (from Broadvision), Socialtext, and tibbr (from Tibco Software). They all offer different features and slightly different levels of management control for business – but the latest release of Tibbr stands out. It’s ‘enterprise ready’ and offers procedures for managing compliance, governance, and security (people can opt for some communications to be private, for example), and just as importantly, it is can create hierarchical cross-application subject and activity streams. ‘We can integrate any software into tibbr. We can even run Chatter inside tibbr,’ says Vivek Ranadivé, CEO of Tibco Software.

Tibco has a factory with nearly 500 people working on creating and maintaining adapters, so that its activity streams can comprise information from pretty much anywhere in pretty much any format. The data flow can be bi-directional between all sorts of business systems (from Oracle Expenses Management, through SAP Treasury Applications, to a SalesForce CRM module), and tibbr can also pull data in from utility feeds such as FedEx or UPS tracking, plus RSS, LinkedIn, Twitter and so on. This means that a when business processes trigger events that feed into tibbr, users can follow them without jumping backwards and forwards between applications. 

In theory, this sort of system could do a lot to help organisations extract maximum value from the legacy systems they have in place, facilitate much more focussed collaboration and interaction between employees, customers, suppliers and others, keep all of the right people engaged in the process, and make it easier for businesses to support and exploit the sort of cross-departmental and cross-company relationships that are essential to business success. Of course, when many organisations are trying to flatten their technology stack, they do add an extra layer – but to potentially great effect. 

They could eliminate many of the problems associated with disparate systems, islands of data, and even the information overload asociated with email, but as Eid cautions: ‘Success is to be found in managing the information and relationships in support of business initiatives and not the simple deployment of technology.’ Over the years business systems have been good at collecting and creating vast amounts of data, less good at turning it into information, and even less good at making this available to those who need it, when they need it. Only time will tell if ‘social business’ tools are going to be any different.

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