Social networking has been the face of Web 2.0 for many years now. But until now the phrase has been synonymous with Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Despite the efforts of companies like LinkedIn to bring social networking into the business world, in many ways organizations have been slow to adapt to the new technology.
Salesforce.com wants to change that. Speaking to 19,000 attendees at the company's Dreamforce conference, CEO Marc Benioff announced Salesforce Chatter, a social-networking product for Salesforce customers.
"Why do I know more about strangers on Facebook than my own employees?" Benioff asked. "Now, through Salesforce Chatter, my business is tweeting me. My employees can use the models they love to get the collaboration they need."
Why should businesses enable social networking, which to many people is the epitome of time-wasting Internet use? According to Salesforce's promotional materials, the "Collaboration Cloud" allows companies to "stay on top of everything that's happening in your company with real-time updates on people, groups, documents and your application data. And all of it will fuel better -- and faster -- business decisions."
Chatter features pretty much every trick in the social-networking toolbox, including profiles (Facebook), status updates (Twitter), Groups (Yahoo), feeds (RSS), collaborative documents (Google Docs), collaborative applications (Salesforce), as well as integration with Facebook, Twitter and Google directly.
So should small and midsize businesses rush out to add social networking to the mix? Maybe not so fast, Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, said in a telephone interview. King pointed out that IBM beat Salesforce to the social-networking party with LotusLive, introduced in January.
Before launching the service, IBM deployed LotusLive internally to every employee around the globe for VoIP telephony and avatar-driven virtual meetings. IBM's work may represent the largest beta test ever of social networking in the enterprise and the jury is still out.
"It's still not clear exactly how well and effectively the tools can be used in general business," King said. "There's concern that they can be a gigantic time suck. There's a great deal of opportunity, but it's a question of how the tools are deployed and managed."
Salesforce may not be directing competing with IBM in this arena, King said, since its install base includes many smaller companies who wouldn't consider an offering from Big Blue. "How Salesforce customers use Chatter will be an interesting experiment in the wild," King said. "It could be fascinating to question early adapters after a year."
How should businesses considering business social networking manage the experience? "Try to maximize networking and minimize social!" King joked. "Business need to carefully manage how employees are gong to use it, what they're going to try to accomplish, how likely they are to achieve those goals, and keep a close eye on how employees are using it."
That said, skepticism about social networking may be a generational thing. It wasn't that long ago that older managers complained that e-mail was a distraction and that communication is better done by phone or in person. While old-school managers may mistrust social networking, younger workers who use the tools in their non-work lives may discover how social networking can make organizations more effective, not less.
At least, that's what Salesforce is betting.