Enterprise social networking sounds like one of those ghastly team building initiatives that otherwise well intentioned companies launch to facilitate employees getting to know each other. Posters with cute slogans, a series of awkward events with people standing around and someone leading the groups through an "ice breaker" exercise or two. The early stages of the corporate use of social networking software looks a bit awkward as well.
Terminology, definition, business use versus social use and ROI are all being actively debated as the category comes together. And the sure sign that this will be a hot category; Gartner is already predicting consolidation. Wait a second. Don't you actually have to have a market before it consolidates? They are also providing a series of confusing stats on the "potential adoption of enterprise social software" ranging from a low of 30% to a high of 60%. Ok let's not nitpick. Gartner analysts don't always tie their predictions to facts so let's not get complicated. Social software is poised to become one of the foundational platforms for collaboration and communication in business and will become a strong growth category in business technology over the next 5 years. You want stats? look at the adoption of Facebook in your company and how often it's being used for collaboration and communication in your business.
The business category needs definition though. "Enterprise Social Networking Software" is an oxymoron. Yes business networks have social threads running through them that share attributes with social networks. There are some obvious and distinct differences however, most of which would fall into the common sense category.
We like "Social Business Software" as the term that best describes the category. We see SBS as fundamentally a cloud based mashup of blog, RSS, Wiki and other collaborative applications and technologies. When used as a foundational platform in business, SBS holds huge promise for corporate productivity and communication. The social networking components and applications allow for stronger, richer business communication, expanding exponentially the one dimensional nature of corporate email systems.
Many people accurately predicted that the browser would overtake PC operating systems as the key user interface on personal computers. Social business software has the potential to do the same thing in business computing. Think about it. Do you spend more time on "social networks" that organize and filter your personal networks and communication, or more time generally surfing the web? Social business software will enable the same, customization, personalization, filtering and interactive communication in the business environment that Facebook does for personal networks. With added functionality, capability and security. Oh yea...and a business model.
Gartner is right in one sense. The current economic conditions aren't making it easy for start ups and companies like Jive, Yammer, NewsGator, Awareness, MindTouch and Socialtext, are all jockeying for position in this emerging category. You also have major players like Microsoft, IBM and others staking their claims and this will likely drive some level of early acquisition activity, in what is clearly a buyers market.
Social business software represents a new paradigm for business computing however and one that may well benefit from a tough economy. This market transition will create new companies, brands and applications and we will be watching the category carefully.,