It's a humble appliance, but, without it, workplace culture doesn't stand a chance. It's the water cooler, where employees meet to open up about themselves and their work.
But as companies disperse operations globally and encourage employees to telecommute, the old-time water cooler is getting to be a lonely place. What's needed is a virtual water cooler-a browser-based application that will enable employees to easily find each other to exchange information and advice.
The concept isn't new. Facebook, LinkedIn and others have been connecting people for years. But many companies frown on or even ban usage of these potentially distracting and insecure tools during company time. In their place, enterprises are running applications with similar capabilities securely behind their corporate firewalls.
"Document-centric collaboration by itself just isn't enough. You need to have something people-oriented right alongside it," said Oliver Young, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Gartner analyst Carol Rozwell said businesses are clamoring for this kind of software, which straddles the categories of social networking and enterprise learning. "There is pent-up demand among learners for easy-to-use tools that simplify the process of connecting a person with the need to know to a person who knows," said Rozwell.
Social media expert and author Paul Gillin concurred. "Formerly, people were forced to give up their knowledge, but with social networks, people willingly give up their knowledge. The great business opportunity is behind the firewall because simple tools can be used to replace more complicated collaboration tools," said Gillin.
Although Facebook and LinkedIn have so far avoided tailoring their products for corporate use, other vendors-ranging from collaboration software giants Microsoft and IBM to obscure startups to established wiki vendors-are scrambling to fill the void.
In fact, Gartner estimated annual spending on enterprise social software to be $280.2 million in 2007, increasing to $1.06 billion in 2012.