Enterprise Social Computing: Next Big Thing or No Big Whoop?


Social computing technologies (the kind of stuff we typically refer to as Web 2.0) are standing at the same crossroads as many other technologies before them. Will they fundamentally transform the way business is done, as the PC, Internet and e-mail did? Or will they be reserved for niche uses and/or become little more than a component for larger technologies, as service-oriented architecture has arguably done?


SOA was the example offered by Mark Koenig, a vice president at Saugatuck Technology, when I interviewed him recently about his report titled "Beware the Gap: Critical Times for Enterprise Social Computing." Enterprise social computing technologies are now being used mostly in departmental implementations in a "first wave" of adoption, with Saugatuck predicting a more enterprise-wide focus in a second wave, followed by a third and final wave in which they help remove the barriers between enterprises and outside suppliers, partners and customers.


A similar trajectory was envisioned by many for SOA, which in just a few short years went from being the "next big thing" in the enterprise to the object of heated blog debates over its future after a prominent analyst declared it "dead." Said Koenig:


I would analogize it in some ways to SOA. A couple of years ago, people were saying it was going to be the next big thing. We ended up drawing a similar chart for one of our clients and saying, "SOA has a lot to offer in terms of agility and flexibility and being able to modify processes quickly, but it also may end up being viewed as a piece of a tool kit and in some ways marginalized." SOA has been extremely important as a foundational technology for software-as-a-service and social computing applications as well. But as a business strategy, it hasn't become the next big thing. I think that's the point where we are right now (with enterprise social computing).


The challenges that must be surmounted to achieve broad adoption of enterprise social computing technologies: network integration, information relevance, integration with enterprise applications, culture shift, data portability, business model and measuring ROI. Koenig predicts the "softer" challenges such as culture shift will be a tougher nut to crack than technology issues. (I'd say this is true of SOA as well.)


Koenig suggests companies may need to adopt a "playground approach" to ROI, in which they give employees the freedom to experiment with ESC technologies. The third or fourth application, rather than the first one, may prove to be most successful. He said:

The thing you think might be the best use may turn out ultimately not to be the best use. You might get in there and try to do a marketing campaign to attract new customers, then discover you've created benefits you weren't expecting for existing customers. It may be the second or third application that yields the real return, but you don't know what that application is yet.