Socializing in the Enterprise
Social media tools that mimic Twitter and Facebook promise to bring team collaboration to corporate users. Getting users and applications connected in a secure, reliable stream can mean the difference between leading and being left behind in an increasingly social world. eWEEK Labs Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant looks at what's behind the emerging specifications that are bringing people, applications and actions together in social media platforms.Status update services, sometimes called microblogging, took off in 2010. A Pew Research Center study released on Dec. 8 revealed 8 percent of American adults who use the Internet also use Twitter. Using social media tools in the enterprise pits open sharing against corporate controls. It also opens a range of integration questions about how best to connect people and applications in an activity stream that is immediately relevant, secure and collaborative.
IT vendors, including Salesforce.com, Socialtext, Socialcast, Yammer and a host of others, have taken notice of the social media explosion by releasing a new wave of social media tools for the enterprise. The big bang that is the birth of social media platforms includes the initial formation of specifications and integration tools that seek to ease interconnection problems, while maintaining the fast-flowing and lightweight nature of social media interactions.
It's fair to say that business users aren't looking for another place to search for the information necessary to do their job. And IT managers in larger enterprises may encounter multiple social media platforms inside a single organization. What's the best way to use social collaboration tools with partners? Is there a better way to integrate social media and back-end systems? The answer today is that a tangle of integration tools and a dearth of standards mean that IT managers must pay careful attention to a wide range of integration tools to curtail client creep. To this end, there are some emerging efforts that are worth watching.
Connecting social systems
Jonathan Green, vice president of information technologies at Den-Mat, a dental-care products company, implemented Chatter as part of a broader Salesforce.com rollout. "We chose to implement Chatter to support our new direct-to-consumer product Snap-On Smile and to collaborate quickly with our vendors, partners and ultimately customers," he said.
Green implemented Salesforce to replace an aging CRM management application running on its IBM AS400. The Salesforce installation was also integrated with a manufacturing component that is still run on premise. Chatter is used to facilitate communication between sales and accounting. Green indicated that Chatter adoption has been successful enough that he may migrate off an existing intranet and use Chatter to support internal collaboration.
To connect social media systems to your key applications, vendors such as Cast Iron and a host of others use custom-coded templates and REST (Representational State Transfer) APIs. The good news is that social media tools are no strangers to the integration process. On the consumer side, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social platforms can share posts and status updates across platforms.
IT managers have choices when it comes to "socializing" the non-human elements of a social media platform. Unlike classic enterprise process integration, in which data is taken from one application and given to another, social integration takes specific types of events and places them into an activity stream that will be read by a person. One example of this is the integration provided by Cast Iron, which uses templates to capture noteworthy events from a back-end system (such as an SAP inventory management system) and releases the data (such as a ship date) into an activity stream that a salesperson will read-all in near real time. This bypasses the batch-process reporting process that traditionally would have been used to present this information.
People who need people
Two standards are emerging to manage the tension between widespread participation and the need for corporate data control. To be clear, these specifications are still piping hot from the forge. One specification is ActivityStreams, an effort to enrich data feeds between social platforms by standardizing the format used to exchange information. In the consumer world, this means making it easier for platforms such as Foursquare to exchange status, comments, bookmarks and news with other sites such as Identi.ca. The specification has been unevenly adopted among enterprise social media tools, but it's useful as an indication of the work needed to ease information sharing between platforms.
Another specification, OStatus, is an open specification for distributing status updates between different social networks. The goal is to enable disparate social media hubs to route status updates between users in near real time. As is typical of the social media space, both of these specifications are at version 1.0.
Further, some of the security protocols that enable social systems to talk with one another and the back-end systems are also fresh from the oven, including OAuth (tinyurl.com/26y9lh8). Thus, IT managers who lean heavily on standards when making technology decisions could get left behind when it comes to implementing social media projects.
Securing the socialites
As the consumerization of enterprise social collaboration pushes forward, the commercial-grade social platforms distinguish themselves from consumer platforms by wrapping security policies that protect corporate secrets around the activity stream. For IT managers, this means that some of the most basic infrastructure- including the directories that hold authoritative data about employees and contractors-must be in order for a social collaboration project to succeed.
In fact, while social media products are pushing productivity with consumer-like crowds, IT basics become even more relevant to success. A clean, well-maintained directory is necessary to support the security underpinnings that control access. Almost as important is directory information, which is essential for populating user profile data. In a nod to the importance of easing employee adoption through simple profile creation, Salesforce.com's Chatter recently gained the ability to pull in a user's Facebook profile information.
After ensuring that the IT basics are up to snuff, IT managers who are considering a social media integration project must consider the security technology used by each of the platforms. According to Sean Whiteley, senior vice president of product marketing at Salesforce.com, the Chatter platform explicitly prohibits OpenID as a user authentication method at this time, although he thinks the standard is a good one for consumer and "prosumer" applications. Conversely, Matt Wilkinson, the vice president of products at Socialcast, said that OpenID is used by Reach, Socialcast's flagship microblogging tool.
Related to the authentication methods used to govern who and what has access to the activity stream is the question of single sign-on. IT managers should take care to ensure that any social media platform they consider has support for the single sign-on solution already used in the organization. One of the best ways to prevent a social media platform from being orphaned is to ensure that users can easily access the activity stream without being burdened with another set of credentials.