Enterprise social heads for the niches

Smaller projects or more silos? That's the question

As I attended the E2 conference in Boston this week, I noticed that the space seems to be headed for the niches, looking for smaller departmental use cases, rather than a bigger, all-encompassing enterprise communications tool.

While that might help make the sale more palatable, you have to wonder if instead of breaking down information silos as it has purported to do all these years, it will just create new ones.

As Alistair Rennie, general manager of collaboration services at IBM, put it while speaking on the Social Panel this week at the conference, "There has to be a business purpose. Enterprise Social] has to solve [a problem], and it doesn't have to be capital T transformation; it can be small t." And what he means by that is enterprise social doesn't have to solve an enterprise-wide communication problem. It could solve a problem in just one small area.

Matt Tucker, co-founder and CTO of Jive, speaking on the same panel, put it slightly differently, although he made off with the idea that it has to have a business purpose as a kind of Duh! statement. "There are all sorts of ways to start social business initiatives. What specific uses cases do you have? How do you measure them and what value are you hoping to achieve? Sometimes we are grooving with the customer and then sometimes it's a blank stare."

Sameer Patel, who is a global VP and GM for enterprise social and collaborative software at SAP, says he calls these niche plays, "sparks for collaboration," such as "we need a structure for ideation or a way to deal with mergers and acquisitions."

Tucker added that it's about making social part of the reality of running the business. "Make it real. Find use cases where there is pain. Find a massive need," he said.

Heidi Ambler, director of social business at IBM (NYSE: IBM), told me that while IBM typically deals with IT, the conversations on social tend to be more at the business unit level. "I have problem x. Can social solve it?" She then went on to show me several use cases, which were defined by a particular business need, as opposed to an enterprise-wide communications channel, and that's different than what I recall hearing in past years at these conferences.

The line of business approach certainly makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective, and it goes without saying that you want to tie any project, whether it's enterprise social or something else, to a real business need. But when you place a tool like enterprise social in a particular area of the company, it would seem to be limiting its potential and risking creating impenetrable social silos of information, thereby solving one problem at the line of business level, while creating yet another enterprise content management one on another.

Disclosure Statement: In the interest of full disclosure, I participate in a separate paid blogger program sponsored by IBM's Midsize Business division. It has no connection to Fierce Markets or this coverage.

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