Q&A: Enterprise Collaboration and the Role of Private Social Networks

How enterprise social collaboration can benefit the enterprise.

When Facebook and other social networking platforms gained popularity as a means for people to stay connected in their personal lives, it was only a matter of time before enterprises looked for ways to mimic such collaboration. Applications such as Salesforce Chatter, SAP Streamwork and Oracle Fusion Streams are emerging venues that enable business users to collaborate and share information in real time. However, the paradigm of this collaboration is different in the enterprise.

Vincent Lam, marketing director at Information Builders, talks about the effect that enterprise social collaboration is having on the industry. He discusses the emerging use of enterprise social collaboration, highlights the benefits and how to deal with the challenges it poses, and provides best practices for rolling out the platform and monitoring the results.

ESJ: What are some of the differences between personal and private enterprise social networks?

Vincent Lam: Personal social networks, such as Facebook, have emerged as potent real-time platforms to allow people to stay connected. Today, over 500 million people currently use Facebook to communicate. In the enterprise, this real-time paradigm is also starting to emerge. Companies such as Salesforce, SAP, and Oracle have created frameworks to support this type of communication and collaboration. The biggest differences between Facebook and these frameworks lie in the importance of privacy, security, and manageability. Important internal discussions shouldn't be publically accessible on Facebook. Users need to be given appropriate tools to leverage this communication medium securely.

What are some of the security concerns IT departments have about these new platforms, and how can they be mitigated?

Account control and information access are key security issues that are addressed in these new enterprise platforms. Public social networks such as Facebook allow users to anonymously create accounts at will. This is impractical and dangerous. Enterprise communication must be authenticated to ensure it is secure and reliable.

The new enterprise social frameworks also have tighter controls over information access. Authorized users are only given certain permissions. Just like enterprise e-mail, all communication via these frameworks can be audited for compliance. The organization hosts the service, so issues such as e-discovery can be addressed.

How can you separate the “rants” typical of public social networks from serious discussions, make sense of the wealth of information that exists, and ensure that the spamming that exists in public social networks doesn’t happen?

Every new communication medium brings with it the risk of abuse. As such, there's a small learning curve when it comes to making useful information available without providing too much extraneous information. The key is good governance. Enterprises must offer training at the outset so users understand how to use the system effectively.

A differentiator at the enterprise level is that policies can be enforced with administrative tools within the system. Somebody can spam Facebook with junk posts using an anonymous account, but the enterprise can prevent this from happening. Facebook doesn't have an administrator or administrative tools at the enterprise level.

What are some of the benefits of implementing social collaboration software in departments?

Enterprise social collaboration software is an ideal real-time communication medium. In many cases, it's becoming the preferred medium -- beyond e-mail or messaging. Collaboration software encourages information sharing among the different people in an organization. These social collaboration portals become hubs for communication.

These frameworks become particularly powerful when they can be integrated with processes and applications. Information Builders -- the company I work for -- makes a Chatter solution called iWay CEP Enable that adds this type of functionality. It essentially enables applications to become fully Chatter-aware. It's known as Event Stream Brokering.

For instance, a VP of sales can opt to be notified in real-time whenever certain orders over a certain dollar amount are received in their ERP system (e.g. SAP). From there, she can preview the purchase order and approve/reject it completely within Chatter. She can include her colleagues in the event if she has questions regarding it. Complex Event Processing (CEP) capabilities add the ability to detect certain behaviors without the need for explicit rules. It really changes the way we look at how people interact with one another and the business processes we rely on. It takes what once were multiple tools, phones, and e-mail messages and consolidates it into a common place where everybody is quite literally on the same page.

We’ve discussed how enterprise social networks benefit communication and collaboration, but what happens to the data that is exchanged via these networks? For example, how is data archived?

Social networks generate a lot of data. We like to talk about the immediate real-time nature of these networks. However, the archiving of these messages is equally important. There is so much that can be gleaned from them.

Just as we do with information in our data warehouses today, we need to consider applying things like business intelligence and analytics to social network data. As these platforms become the conduits between people and processes, we have a terrific opportunity to see what's happening in the enterprise. Insight into trends, usage, resource allocation, personnel, sales, marketing, and more can be obtained from this data. For instance, the concept of a trending hashtag in Twitter is similar to what we could get from this data.

Once you’ve installed an enterprise collaboration system, how do you change your employees’ mindsets so they begin to migrate to the platform? What are some typical adoption issues organizations can expect to encounter?

You ultimately need to give the users a reason to migrate. Just telling them to use the new tool isn't really a compelling reason.

Users naturally gravitate to the best tools for a given job. Features that improve productivity and make life easier encourage users to try these tools. Fortunately, a well-implemented enterprise social collaboration tool can do just that.

One example is legacy integration. Information Builders’ iWay CEP Enable provides native Chatter capabilities to over 300 sources in the enterprise. This type of integration allows users to consistently interact with various systems in a unified way. It's terrific when a user is getting to the people and processes he needs in a consistent real-time manner. Imagine going from a green screen, two desktop applications, and three web applications to one unified Chatter screen.

Do organizations need to enact policies to ensure sensitive data is properly handled? Particularly when an organization is in the early stages of implementation, how can you monitor the platform to make sure information is being communicated in the manner requested?

Policies must be in place to protect sensitive data. We need to remember that the very nature of social collaboration involves sharing information among many people. Proper training, combined with strict governance of these networks is necessary to ensure that particularly sensitive information is not disseminated openly to those who should not see it.

Since it is an open medium, there will be a certain level of self-policing that is required. This self-policing includes sensitive data as well as appropriateness of remarks or comments. Of course, audits and administration tools will also help in this area.

What does the future hold?

One of the most exciting things about our industry is that technology is constantly changing and evolving. In the consumer world, it’s difficult to remember that it was just a few short years ago that Twitter and Facebook exploded, permanently altering the way we communicate with those in our personal networks. The same will soon hold true for the way we collaborate in the enterprise.

There are numerous benefits for enterprise social collaboration. Just as Twitter allows us to stay updated on the latest happenings in our friends’ personal lives, applications like Chatter provide real-time communication benefits that can be customized to the needs of the individual organization, department, group, or user. It’s an exciting time for enterprise collaboration.