Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Who Needs Social Networking Anyway?

These days, you can't throw a rock without hitting yet another software service pushing social networking features. Social is the next killer app, or so we're told. Social is the feature that will vault your ho-hum service into the realm of Facebook or Twitter. Social is the must-have feature for services like touch is for smart phones.

The problem with social is that, while it makes sense to some, some isn't everyone. For all of those that are interested (or should be interested) in what somebody else is doing, there is an equal or larger number (I'll let you estimate the multiple) of people who not just don't care or can't be bothered -- knowing is an inconvenience. This is particularly true in the business world -- understanding why social is relevant can be difficult for many business users.

This issue is getting pushed to the front burner with the newest update to Salesforce.com, Winter 11. With the Winter 11 release, Salesforce has activated Chatter for everyone -- force-feeding it to their customer base so to speak. If you're dealing with a user base that get's freaked out by changes or new technologies, this may have dropped you into a hurricane, but is it actually a tempest in a teapot?

Social Networking for Business
In the early days of Twitter, many of us dove into the technology, thrilled by the power of "follow". For many business users, follow was a cool idea, but Twitter wasn't secure for business communications. Then there was start-up company Yammer, and some similar knock-off companies that followed -- basically Twitter for business. We did some experimenting with Yammer, and while it did perform like Twitter, we struggled to find an effective use case for the platform. With Yammer -- simply basic Twitter functionality -- we found that emails and direct communications tended to supersede Yammer posts. Essentially, the problem with social was that it was like adding a layer of social to our social business interaction.

When they were first introducing Chatter at Salesforce's Dreamforce conference last year, initially I had the same feeling. Here was something that wouldn't really change the way that we use the software, instead acting like yet another add-on. But as I realized the potential impact of being able to follow key account or opportunity records, I started to get really excited. Here was an opportunity to roll up all of your important business activity into a single feed.

When Chatter first rolled out, I pushed and pushed to become part of the beta, and when we finally got it activated, my excitement turned to disappointment. While I had envisioned a system that, if you follow an account, would let you know when there were any related records that appeared (or were updated), the actual implementation didn't work that way. Currently in Chatter, you have to follow specific records to receive feed updates from those records, and it only generates feeds based on that record. In order words, you can follow an account and still not know if anything has happened (in terms of activity) on that account. Theoretically, this functionality will be implemented in a future release, but until that time, Chatter remains yet another social layer.

Don't get me wrong -- Chatter stands unique among most social networking tools for business in that it integrates business records, not just people. This has the potential to swing the balanced for business users that don't think that they care "what other people are doing." I'm truly looking forward to the future implementation of this functionality -- assuming they don't get side-tracked by adding some of the other "social" functionality features.

The Real Cornerstone of Social
While people and follow are often considered the core for social networking, I think that the real cornerstone of social is the aggregate feed. Whenever people ask me about Facebook or Twitter (particularly questioning their value), I try to explain it to them in terms of the feed. By simplifying and aggregating brief updates of all of the things that you follow -- and creating your own headline news -- you can more easily feel connected to the things that are important to you.

When Salesforce can get this functionality fully implemented into their platform with Chatter, it promises to be an incredibly powerful tool. Imagine following a key account in Salesforce and receiving an update whenever an invoice is sent to that account from an integrated Oracle system. Or maybe you need to see when your parts shipped from China. Imagine being able to get that data and review it on your iPhone while you're standing in the checkout line at Costco. Meanwhile, your account manager can customize their feed to follow any new cases created at their key accounts.

Simply put, the key to social is the customizable follow-feed relationship. With Salesforce.com, Chatter, and your key business objects, you can see the lights coming, but there's still some time remaining before it runs over everything else. Hopefully they can get it implemented before they alienate the anti-social business users.

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