Chatter Not Just 'Facebook for the Enterprise'

By Debra Donston  |  Posted 2010-06-22 Chatter Not Just 'Facebook for the Enterprise' customers now have a new way to communicate and collaborate. On June 22, announced the general availability of Chatter, a cloud-based enterprise social collaboration application and platform.

Chatter applies social networking features made popular by Facebook and Twitter-such as profiles, status updates and real-time feeds-to business collaboration. Chatter was launched in private beta in February.

Click here to view a slide show on's new Chatter. Director of Platform Research Peter Coffee recently spoke with Debra Donston, Ziff Davis Enterprise Director of Audience Recruitment and Development, about the implications of Chatter-and social networking in general-in the enterprise. Following are excerpts from the discussion.

Chatter looks and feels very much like Facebook. How is Chatter similar and how is it different from the social networking most of us use today?

People are very excited about the social networking model. We've been sharing numbers that indicate social network interaction has surpassed e-mail as people's preferred mode of interaction and collaboration.

The drawback to the business use of this model has been the accurate perception that public social networks emphasize ease of sharing-and share lots of stuff, in a very straight-forward and convenient way-but if you want to have precise management of what you do and do not share, and with whom you do or do not share it, that requires a tremendous amount of effort. Various public social tools have been known to introduce features with liberal sharing as the default, requiring a constant effort to get the spilled ants back in the nest to keep a confidence that you have control of the sharing behaviors.

We started with a different direction. We started with the trust model that's at the bottom of the platform, where every data object type that you use from our standard portfolio--or that you create by using the facilities for creating custom data-has four distinct privileges: the privilege to create new ones, to delete existing ones, to view existing ones, or to edit existing ones. Those are four separate privileges, and every object type has them.

Our customers define what we call profiles through groups of privileges: Some people have privileges to read things, and some people have privileges to change things, and some people have purely administrative privileges to clean up things by deleting them, which doesn't necessarily mean they can look at them first.

We thought, what if you start with that highly granular, auditable model and added the dynamic behaviors of social networks? If you have privileges to look at something, now you can follow something, you can receive dynamic updates from that something. And what if beyond just having people following each other and talking about things that are happening with their data, what if the data itself could launch an update? What if an account could have something like a Facebook page? What if an opportunity or a case could have something like that? And what if this could integrate across multiple networks?

Imagine that a customer is having a problem with your product or service and they Tweet about that-because, let's face it, people don't begin by calling the company 800 number and the help desk. They begin by looking for help from their social network on Facebook or Twitter or whatever.

So, let's imagine that an unhappy or uncertain customer or prospect Tweets something that looks like something you ought to address. What if you could capture that tweet-automatically, because you're constantly searching the tweet-stream for messages about your company and your products-immediately package that tweet into a problem-resolution case, automatically query the skills matrix or expertise matrix, and notify three or four people in your company that they have just been made part of a case-resolution group for this issue? When they work the problem and have a resolution, they paste in the recommended answer to the customer and hit a button. The reply a.) goes back to Twitter, which means that the person who did the original tweet gets the answer and all the people who follow that person see that the problem was answered and that your company was actively participating in this conversation, and that's great b.) the initial problem and recommended solution could also be compiled into your own FAQ database, which, using something like Salesforce Sites, can immediately be reflected in a public-facing FAQ Website.

All of this can happen within minutes-without any e-mails, no one trying to figure out how to forward e-mails to get all of this done-because all of this can be designed and constructed as a workflow. So, the fact that at the top layer you have something that bears a striking resemblance to the Facebook model, that's really cool, because that's the way that people have already demonstrated they want to work. But look behind the scenes at the fact that this is grounded in this application platform with these incredible integration facilities, automation tools, process management facilities, and underlying security and trust model, and it really opens the door to a completely new class of business applications that you can call social process monitoring.

Chatters Usefulness


How will Chatter be useful within an organization?

Almost everyone at follows Marc Benioff; about one-third of the people in the company follow me, because they know I generate a lot of content because I'm doing a lot of speaking. So I generate an update that says, hypothetically, "I'm going to be talking to a bunch of our partners in Mexico City next week. This is the presentation I'm thinking of using. I'd welcome any input." Well, immediately, people who follow me who are interested in our Latin American marketing effort might want to take a look at that. People who are interested in how we market to value-added resellers and integration partners might want to look at that. People who are attentive to issues of working with customers outside the U.S. with our data centers inside the U.S. or in Singapore, or the new one in Japan, might want to take a look at how we address issues such as residency. But they get to decide if they're interested.

And instead of e-mailing copies of the presentation or create a copy in some external environment [such as Google Apps], I just go  ahead and link the draft document to my update message, and anyone who follows me can view it without downloading it at all because we have that facility built in. Or they can download it, or I can do a link to our content library or even to a Google Doc that people would be able to open as long as they are inside our network.

I have lots of different ways to share stuff. I'm not burdening the network storage by e-mailing out lots of copies of what might be a bulky file, and I don't have to try to imagine everyone who might have useful input to offer. Everyone in our company can self-affiliate with areas in which they have interest and areas in which they have expertise, and they can respond when they're able.

You wind up with a much more vigorous level of collaboration when you start to discover things about co-workers that maybe you never knew. You can quantify this. We turned on Chatter internally, and within a matter of weeks our e-mail traffic dropped by 40 percent. And that's not atypical. Organizations tend to adopt this very quickly. Within 24 hours of joining the data, organizations tell us, everyone in the company has created a personal page. Everyone in the company is beginning to follow each other, and we're already seeing collaboration take place.

Historically, it's been a challenge for new collaboration tools to really take hold in a company. Why do you think Chatter is being adopted so quickly?

There are three key reasons why we have seen and why we expect to continue to see very rapid initial adoption and persistent, high rates of use with Chatter.

One, once you start using the Chatter mechanism to create following networks, they will become very important to you. The first thing you do in the morning, when you get started with work, will be to go check out your updates page and see what's happened in the time since you last looked at that page. Or you'll pull out your cell phone and see what's happened in the last 20 minutes before you have a conversation with a customer. Or you will pull out your phone on your way into the building to talk to a customer, and find out if any support cases have been filed by the customer in the last 24 hours, so that you know before you walk in the door if anything's going to happen.

The second key reason is that it's very structured. The problem with a lot of these collaboration tools is that they turn into Grandma's attic. There's tons and tons of interesting stuff up there, but it's got no organization. You end up having to pay a third-party consultant to continually come in and work with you to make it usable storage instead of just sharable storage.

Chatter-since it's organized fundamentally around a very familiar model of profiles, conversations, feeds and updates--tends to be self-organizing in that respect. It's not just a great big place where you can dump stuff and share files and then talk about them on e-mail. Instead, the collaboration, the sharing and the notification are all deeply wired in--particularly when you don't have to depend on people to notice things and initiate conversations, but instead you can initiate a rule from then on: Any account in, hypothetically, the Northwest region involving a retail customer of 50 or more users that goes yellow, you automatically get an update. Well, if you created that rule, you don't have to make any further effort every morning to go check that stuff. The system becomes smarter over time.

Third, I think it's going to be driven culturally. What we've found in our own environment is that, as Chatter takes root--and we've seen this with beta testers, as well--if you're not involved with Chatter, you don't know what's going on. That's a very powerful motivator. This becomes better than the water cooler, better than playing golf with the boss, better than having drinks with the right people after work.

Many IT professionals have demonstrated an extremely cautious attitude around social networking in the enterprise. And there have been many cases of employees getting in trouble for expressing TMI about their organizations on public networks. Is Chatter something that will be advocated for by business managers, to the chagrin of IT?

One of the most important things to understand about enterprise cloud services, compared to consumer Web apps being used by companies, is that enterprise cloud services are being marketed to IT departments and business professionals-and they tend to provide a lot of facilities to manage access and to control adoption. Whether or not a certain profile has Chatter enabled is controllable. I could initially enable it only for my top three tiers of management. In other organizations, I might decide that the single most valuable thing Chatter can do is get my salespeople exchanging best practices and having real-time huddles around particular issues. Or, maybe one of the first things I'll want to do is turn on Chatter for my R&D teams and immediately create pages around some of our big research initiatives and have much better ways to share findings, share techniques and share data.

There are different ways companies can adopt Chatter. It doesn't need to be a bucket of Gatorade that you pour over the whole organization. I can aim this capability at specific functions, and enable it for people with specific roles and needs. It is an API--you can write very straightforward rules that say these are the things I want to see updates on.

Individual users also have a lot of control: If you don't want to follow Accounts, don't. If there are people who are not getting the point that this is a business tool and they are chatting an update every time they find a nice new place for lunch, unfollow them. It has a lot of different self-correcting tools and automation and management tools available to it.

Our experience-and we've been doing this beta for a couple of months now-is that people figure out pretty quickly that this isn't the place where you post a picture of your cat playing the piano. It's a business tool, and people tend to respond appropriately.


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