Enterprise social networks have endless possibilities, despite hurdles

You can use enterprise social networks in all sorts of creative ways, but getting them to work with existing systems is easier said than done.

Organizations may have an easier time unlocking the potential of enterprise social networks if they integrate those tools with existing systems and applications.

Some IT shops are reluctant to embrace enterprise social networks, viewing them as yet another communication tool with little additional value. If integrated correctly, however, social collaboration software can save companies time and money and increase productivity. But that's a big "if" in many cases.

"We still have a long way to go to build more work processes into [our platform]," said Jeff Ross, community manager for Humana Inc., a Louisville, Ky.-based health care company.

The growing pains of enterprise social networks

Enterprise social networks can save organizations billions of dollars per year in productivity time spent managing email, communicating internally and searching for information, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Company, a global enterprise consulting firm based in New York City. Employees spend roughly one-third of their work week simply dealing with email, and social collaboration tools can help reduce that time, according to the analysis of 4,200 companies.

Humana, which has 40,000 employees working across all 50 states, has used VMware Inc.'s Socialcast for about two years. In that time, its Socialcast implementation has grown to 20,000 registered users, with about half of them active in any given month, Ross said.

To expand Socialcast's reach further, it needs to be more tightly integrated with existing systems and applications, Ross said. It integrates with Microsoft SharePoint to archive and store the unstructured data generated by Socialcast users in searchable documents. Ross has tried to integrate Socialcast with Humana's Microsoft Outlook email client and make the platform available natively on mobile devices, but there's been pushback from IT on both fronts because of security concerns, existing mobile policy and higher priorities for other projects.

"We're getting there," Ross said. "We're light-years ahead of where we started, and I'm working with IT to grease the wheels, but they have plenty of other stuff to worry about, so it's understandable."

The future of enterprise social networks

Most organizations that use Socialcast and other enterprise social networking platforms, such as Salesforce.com's Chatter, Jive, Citrix Systems Inc.'s Podio, Cisco Systems Inc.'s WebEx Social, or Microsoft's recently acquired Yammer, simply graft them onto existing communications tools, said Brad Shimmin, a social collaboration analyst at Current Analysis Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based research firm.

When these platforms evolve into a way for "existing systems and applications to interact with humans," organizations will discover tremendous value from automated workflows across various systems, Shimmin said.

Once that happens, IT will have to support these tools, because the pressure to do so will come from C-level executives, not just end users, he added.

One day, IT pros could even use enterprise social networks to facilitate and manage relationships among other corporate assets. At last week's VMworld 2012 conference, attendees saw a brief demo of Socialcast allowing virtual machines and other systems to interact as if they were human participants.

"We're starting to work towards that vision," said Alexi Robichaux, VMware's product manager for Socialcast. "Instead of just sharing or liking something in a post, [users could] trigger a workflow process from the social network feed. That's the idea, anyway."

For example, salespeople could follow their CRM system on Socialcast to receive updates about closing deals or other actionable events when they occur. Similar possibilities could apply to email, calendars and news alerts for system updates or other relevant processes that look like they came from the system and not IT, Shimmin said.

"The possibilities are endless," he said.

Socialcast just received an update to support OAuth 2, which allows enterprise systems and applications to publish into the Socialcast stream on behalf of existing human users. In other words, if an organization's network shuts down for updates, IT wouldn't have to send out an email reminder for employees to stay off the network.

"The system would just alert employees" by publishing a status update on Socialcast, Robichaux said.

Such machine-to-human interaction could still be about a year off, he said. It's relatively easy to integrate Socialcast into other enterprise systems and applications, but it's proven difficult to do the reverse, he added.

IBM Connections allows some systems to have human interaction by breaking the software up into a set of service components that can be used independently of each other. TIBCO Software Inc.'s Tibbr product also has similar functionality. VMware would be only the third company to move in this direction for enterprise social networking, Shimmin said.

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