Enterprise Social Software: No One Has Figured It Out Yet

By now we all know that social media and social software are going to change the world of business. Forecasters of the future are sure of it.

“By 2014, social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users,” Gartner predicts.

Considering the way e-mail changed communication in most corporations -- no more stupid faxes, no more walking down the hall — it makes intuitive sense that the latest popular way of communicating would find its way into business. 

This is all part of the idea of the new, improved, technology-boosted business environment, also known as Enterprise 2.0. There are enough product developers and investors and consultants working with the concept to support conferences and exhibitions.

It's great to see excitement and brain power circling around a potentially transformative idea. There are undeniable potential benefits to some form of social networking in the enterprise. Collaboration, access to institutional memory, and certainly better communication, especially between departments that might not otherwise encounter each other: help desk and product design, for example. Deloitte does a nice job of summarizing potential applications in this report.

Certainly the enterprise needs to more easily capture and direct and maintain valuable knowledge generated within and without, and many of the “knowledge management” tools currently in existence are so clunky and burdensome that they get in the way of getting work done. (One of an IT writer's worst fears is having to sit through a demo of the latest enterprise  “information management” tools.) That's why there's this yearning for an easier way to share and network at work.

And that's part of the reason why people get excited about something like “Facebook for the enterprise.” Here's something that people know how to use, like to use, and use with gusto. Everybody knows Facebook, ergo let's make them use it at work.

As Lawrence Coburn, founder of DoubleDutch, points out, the arguments for “repackaging Facebook-like functionality for the enterprise”  are good ones on the surface: “the growing dominance of Facebook and social functionality in general in the consumer world, and the increasing hesitation of employees to leave their favorite devices and apps at the door when they go (or login) to work.”

The Facebook-for-the-enterprise crowd is falling into the mistaken premise that because people do something at home or after hours, it will transfer somehow to their jobs, that it must have some utility for the business organization. We have enough evidence from history and culture to know this is not always true. Exhibit A: Television.

Even though Coburn's company is involved in developing “enterprise geosocial apps” and thus might have his own reasons to think Facebook is not the solution, I have to agree with him: The “enterprise-social app won’t be a Facebook-style mega app at all. It will be hundreds of mobile first, social, simple apps with narrow contact graphs and limited scope that deliver value to specific work groups, and hook seamlessly into the legacy back-end systems.”

Here's another prediction: This app is going to spring from some little company none of us has yet heard of. Just like Facebook did. I would also bet this little company is operating in some country outside the U.S.A. My money is on Latin America, where people en masse have bypassed old-timey phone lines and gone right to mobile connections; where developers in places like Argentina and Mexico are building solutions for leading companies like Google; where creative designers in Colombia are matching skills with Madison Avenue; and Brazil, where enterprise developers invented systems that revolutionized the world of IT for financial services around the world.

Coming up with the killer social app for the enterprise is going to require a fresh way of looking at things. A willingness to take a risk is essential. A spirit of innovation — hey, let's try that! — is also key. These are all traits routinely cited by American outsourcing customers as things they like about collaborating with Latin American IT providers. Don't be surprised if these traits end up spawning the big social app that enterprises some day embrace with as much enthusiasm as they eventually embraced e-mail.