Can Salesforce.com Make Chatter Epicenter of Enterprise Collaboration?

Ann All
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Earlier this week, my IT Business Edge colleague Loraine Lawson wrote a post about some of the news from Salesforce.com's recent Dreamforce conference related to the company's Chatter collaboration tool. Not surprisingly, her post focused on integration, the topic she covers for ITBE. She mentioned Chatter's potential to improve both internal and external collaboration, but included an on-target list of its shortcomings from Dion Hinchcliffe, most of which relate to Chatter's need to integrate more fully with other enterprise applications.

 

Salesforce has been working on it. Sameer Patel, writing for the Enterprise Irregulars, notes that Salesforce "has been immersed in 12 months of integration and investment rationalization" and includes a list of software providers that are offering - or will soon - integration with Chatter. As he says, many of them are "cloud based leaders who have their sights on the large enterprise market," including Workday and Infor. (Helllloooo, cloud-based ERP!)

 

Patel also mentions some of Salesforce's tweaks to Chatter, which should make it more appealing to enterprises that may not already be hardcore Salesforce users. (Those companies will be the toughest sell for Chatter.) Some of the most significant tweaks include a data residency option that connects the cloud to data centers behind firewalls and an integration with Microsoft SharePoint. Loraine mentioned others in her post, including Chatter Groups, a new feature that allows employees to connect with external folks like suppliers in a way that protects corporate information.

 


But do these Chatter tweaks and partnerships do enough to address what has emerged as the single biggest collaboration challenge, making it central to employees' daily workflow? That's not clear. (And probably won't be for a while.)

 

Hinchclffe's caveats include a lack of workflow support, which Patel seconds by noting the still-unidirectional nature of Chatter streams. Receiving information from enterprise apps is good, but the ability to put Chatter information back into those systems of record would make it great.

 

ZDNet's Larry Dignan mentions some other Chatter caveats, including Chatter users' ability to cope with noise from Chatter streams. I wondered about that too, and asked about it last spring when I interviewed Jeremy Roche, CEO of FinancialForce.com, about his company's use of Chatter. Roche compared Chatter to Twitter in that users tend to follow only the streams that are relevant to them and drop out of Chatter streams when their input is no longer required. Calling it a "new way of working," Roche told me:

Although there's more information, it improves my ability to see things easily and respond to them. From my perspective, you can be more proactive in dealing with problems because you see them so much earlier on. I'd much rather be involved early than late.

Salesforce.com is far from the only company offering process collaboration to companies. Jive Software, Yammer and Tibco are among the others. Companies using multiple collaboration tools will likely suffer from what I called "social silos" and what Dignan refers to as "social sprawl." This could actually help Salesforce, opines Dignan, as some IT buyers might view Chatter as "the great social enterprise consolidator."

 

(Again, companies already using Salesforce products will be more likely to take this route. Or will they? Dignan wonders if all of the talk about enterprise collaboration will turn off some companies that see it as little more than a vendor's pitch to sell them more software.)

 

There's also what John Wayne referred to as "the Big C." The movie icon meant cancer, but I always think of it when writing about culture, the factor that derails so many enterprise technology initiatives.

 

Hinchcliffe sums this up well in a post for the Dachis Group, offering a list of four steps that most companies will take as they make the transition to social business. They are:

  • Moving to some participant channels, then to all separately, and finally together. Reaching that last phase will result in "consistency, reduced duplication, better governance, and higher business impact," Hinchcliffe writes, noting that "the organizations that can do this in the fewest steps will be the winners. ..."
  • Going social generally first, then connecting social activity to work processes. Check. Pretty much the point of this post.
  • Starting at the departmental level, then creating enterprise-level social business capability. This is where a strong executive sponsor for social can really help, Hinchcliffe suggests.
  • Top-down leadership and grass-roots initiatives meet in the middle, then sort it out.

 

Each of these four steps represent plenty of challenges. Companies will take these steps at different paces and some may not take them at all.

 

Last spring in a post about companies moving at different speeds on social technologies, I shared the five organizational models of social business from the Altimeter Group's Jeremiah Owyang. Each has distinct styles of collaboration, and there is no one right model. Owyang's sound advice was for companies to identify their current model and then the model to which they aspire, keeping in mind their company size, industry, corporate culture and goals for social technologies, among other factors. And, Owyang wrote: "Don't expect these changes to happen quickly or without change management programs."



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