Microblogging in the enterprise attempts to harness the power of Twitter and Facebook-like activity streams of social networking in a private, secure business setting. Quick hitting “what am I doing now” comments mingle with files and followers in a fast flowing river of information. The emerging question for IT managers is can social collaboration tools solve business problems and provide access to your organization’s resources while containing implementation costs?
The newly minted Chatter Free offering from Salesforce.com fits neatly with that company’s CRM and development platform by making no-cost, social collaboration available for anyone with a corporate e-mail account. The Yammer client was updated in late 2010 and integrates social tools with corporate functions including organization charts and leaderboard reports of popular topics and users.
Below, I review both enterprise social networking tools. Any organization already using Salesforce.com services already has Chatter in the platform. There is a $15 per-month, per-user Chatter Plus client to fully collaborate within the Salesforce.com universe. Chatter Free is a nice extension of the social collaboration for organizations that want the ability to collaborate and follow people, documents and files but don’t need the full, licensed sales or service features found in the licensed editions of Salesforce.com. Chatter Free is also available at Chatter.com for no-cost use by organizations that don’t use other Salesforce.com products.
I also look at veteran social collaboration maker Yammer, which was significantly enhanced in version 2.0. The no-cost Yammer Basic can be used by organizations that want to try out collaboration. Yammer Premium adds additional administrative, integration and branding features for $5 per-month, per-user. Yammer Basic provides a platform where users can create profiles, share files and collaborate on events. The Yammer tools have a simple, clean interface that makes it easy for users to navigate and find shared information in the organization.
Chatter Free from Salesforce.com is a new entry in the social media market to the extent that the service offering is now available without buying a Salesforce.com license for one of the company’s other product editions. Thus, Chatter enters the enterprise social media fray with the experience gained from deployments at Salesforce.com customer sites. Chatter became available on Dec. 7 and is available at no cost for users with a corporate e-mail account.
To begin using Chatter, users go to the product Website and complete a simple registration process using their corporate e-mail address. A link necessary to complete registration is sent to the corporate e-mail account thus ensuring that only users who have a working corporate e-mail gain access to the otherwise private social collaboration tools provided by Chatter.com.
During tests, I accessed Chatter through the Web interface and by downloading the no-cost Chatter desktop application for Windows and on an iPad. Chatter mobile is also supported on BlackBerry devices. I would like to see Salesforce.com release a Chatter mobile client for Android phones, a noticeably absent capability that is found in nearly every competitive platform. I would also like Salesforce.com to anticipate that Windows Phone 7 will need a mobile Chatter client as well.
As with nearly all no-cost competitors, there is a certain wild-west feeling to the user onboarding process. Users sign up on their own by going to Chatter.com or by responding to an invitation delivered through the corporate e-mail system. I recommend that organizations that decide to implement Chatter launch a formal adoption campaign that includes a “rules of the road” and formal e-mail invitation campaign to get adoption off to a good start. Chatter does come with a series of short instructional videos that will help users both understand how to use the product while showing some good use cases for participating in a social activity stream.
The default landing page is a Chatter-branded Web interface, which is where I spent most of my testing time. I also downloaded the Chatter Desktop onto a Windows 7 system. The Chatter Desktop resembles an IM client with an activity stream running down a narrow window on the desktop. Tabs at the top of the Chatter window let me see the whole Chatter stream, chats directed at me alone, other co-workers who were signed up to use Chatter and groups. No other application problems were reported on tests run from the iPad or various Windows and Linux systems running the most current operating systems and browsers.
Chatter administration falls to moderators. The first user to register an account using a corporate e-mail address becomes the Chatter moderator, a role that can be easily shared or relinquished to another. Moderators can activate or deactivate other Chatter users, promote or demote another Chatter user as a moderator and delete posts and comments.
Chatting and working with other test users was quite easy. I was able to share very large (more than 20 MB) files by uploading them to a secure online repository. Chatting looks and feels the same as in Facebook. I could also share links and images. Files that Chatter recognized, including images, Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, were displayed in a thumbnail in the activity stream. Like the Chatter feature in Salesforce.com’s paid editions, I was able to “follow” documents and files just as I would a person so that I could see developments or changes in a project.
Yammer 2.0 launched in September 2010 with the addition of several new features that include new ways for users to interact and augment the microblogging capabilities of the previous version. Yammer Basic is available at no cost. Yammer Premium costs $5 a month per user and provides a host of features including advanced administration, single sign-on integration and custom branding.
To use Yammer, a user need only go to the Website and start the registration process using a corporate e-mail address. The registration process is completed by clicking on a link that is received in the corporate e-mail system. Yammer Premium can be synchronized with Microsoft Active Directory. After users were added to the system, it was quite easy to send them invitations to joining groups and to send them direct messages. The Yammer user console neatly displays member details, pending invitations, who is online and the time and date of their last status update.
During tests I mainly used Yammer from the default landing page. The neat, clean layout is sparse and easy to navigate. Tabs at the top of the page make it easy to navigate to features that go beyond the essentials of microblogging and social collaboration. Questions, polls and events are segregated onto separate tabs to highlight and given a special icon in the activity stream to more easily distinguish them from other posts. Yammer also provides a mobile client for Apple iPad, iPhone, Android and BlackBerry devices. I would like to see Yammer proactively create a Windows Phone 7 client.
Yammer Basic comes with the rudimentary ability to remove user accounts. With the premium version comes the ability to issue guest passes, provision or block new accounts, delete content and manage applications that are added to the Yammer platform. During tests, it was easy to see how many users were logged on to the system and to get a basic idea of what they were doing.
I was able to find out quite a bit about the test social network from various apps and reports in Yammer. Apps let me break down overall usage to see the most prolific posters and the most followed threads in the social activity stream. Clicking on various app tabs showed aggregated similar social data including all the events, questions, polls, files and images that were being tracked by the system. It was also easy to see group membership and activity as well.
The clean interface and interactive extras recommend Yammer for organizations that want to take a fairly structured approach to the social network experience. The polls and events tabs, in particular, will likely suggest to users how they can use the activity stream to foster group collaboration.
After spending time with both services, some general observations emerged. For one thing, corporate e-mail is emerging as the root authority for user identity and access control. Passwords and account management chores are handled inside the framework of the e-mail system, not an unreasonable method for streamlining user administration.
Guiding the questions about cost and suitability are the basic requirements for enterprise social collaboration tools. User profiles that display contact and skills, user groups, secure communication and file sharing and mobile access are just some of the basic features of any social network tool worthy of implementation. Some systems co-mingle legacy application and directory integration. The suitability of social tools in an enterprise setting also raises generational concerns as older workers learn new ways to communicate and new workers adapt free-wheeling private social methods to the work place. And all social network tools require a clearly stated acceptable use policy, usually similar to existing e-mail and Internet use guidelines.
While there is an emerging set of “table stakes” or basic features that are required for IT managers to even consider a social media platform, there are a number of important distinguishing features on which to base a buying decision. Regulated or privacy constrained organizations that don’t yet have a standard method for securely moving data in a cloud environment may need to maintain a hardware appliance on premise. While I don’t think this will be a long-term solution for companies that operate in a competitive market, it is the case that the IT industry and government regulators are at the cusp of finding secure ways to store data in the most cost-effective manner. Today, that sometimes means on premise.
IT and line-of-business managers must take a shared interest in the tools that come with a social media platform to promote user adoption. The amount of user training, no matter how slight, must be factored into the implementation plan. Users must have the skills to effectively use the platform or implementation will fail.
I recommend that IT managers find a C-level executive to champion the enterprise social networking project. Social media in the enterprise contends with well-established communication methods including e-mail, instant messaging, on-premise legacy collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Lotus Notes. These legacy communication methods are primarily for direct one-to-one conversations. If you decide that social collaboration tools have a place in your organization, it will take technology plus executive leadership for the project to succeed.