Earlier this week I wrote a post about the growing momentum to embed collaborative features into enterprise software applications. Companies seem keen to find a collaborative middle ground by facilitating workflows somewhere between highly structured traditional enterprise applications and unstructured Web 2.0 applications. Rather than communicating via standalone Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis, colleagues want to be able to connect with each other from within apps.
One of the companies strongly pitching this idea is Salesforce.com, which earlier this year introduced Chatter, a service it promises will make enterprise software more like Facebook. Chatter users can follow colleagues or, more interestingly, "objects" such as sales deals. My initial reaction was lukewarm, as it sounded a little too much like Google Wave, a service that has underwhelmed me. And descriptions like "Yammer on crack," which I saw on Twitter, also made me think Chatter might be more of a distraction than anything else.
I no longer feel that way after my conversation with Jeremy Roche, CEO of FinancialForce.com, a startup that has integrated Chatter features into its accounting application, FinancialForce Accounting, and uses Chatter to satisfy its own internal collaboration needs. It just introduced a business collaboration application called Chatterbox that monitors activities on Salesforce's Force.com against a set of rules defined by users. When a rule is triggered, users linked to that rule are notified and a Salesforce Chatter stream is started. Chatterbox searches constantly for events that trigger those alerts and encourages collaboration in response to a situation.
Because he's a hands-in CEO, Roche follows all sales opportunities set to close in a month. If there's a problem, he can react proactively. Similarly, the company's VP of product monitors a Chatterbox focused on outstanding help desk calls so she can follow up on any that aren't resolved within a predetermined time frame. While we were talking, Roche mentioned several conversations occurring in FinancialForce's Chatter stream. A group of consultants was collaborating on designing a customer's chart of accounts, a task that traditionally would have been accomplished by e-mail. Product management was talking about the forthcoming release of a new version of software, an announcement that would have been posted on an intranet. One employee issued a call for help writing requirements for a customer enhancement, seeking colleagues with experience in renewals accounting.
Roche described Chatter as "a combination between Twitter, Facebook and Google Wave, focused on the enterprise." He said:
With Chatter, as you're having conversations, they're building up within the application and relating themselves to the people, the groups of people and the end object, whether it's a customer, a transaction, an opportunity. Rather than having to reinvent or repeat things, you do it once in the application and it's there.
Roche said Chatter has reduced e-mail volumes at FinancialForce, especially the long and fragmented message chains in which it's sometimes difficult to discern who started a conversation, who is involved in it, and what actions need to be taken. It lends a level of visibility into business activity that Roche said simply isn't possible to attain with more traditional tools such as management dashboards. He said:
I can see my lead flow and conversion rates for the month, those sorts of things. It's more of a rounded picture. I can derive from it very quickly what people are doing and what they are interested in.
It took roughly four hours for all 55 of FinancialForce's employees, who are scattered across two continents, to adopt Chatter. Enterasys Networks, a network and security subsidiary of Siemens that has been testing Chatter, enjoyed a similar experience, according to a Seattle Times story. The company's director of IT applications called it "very viral" and said Chatter has been quite popular among its executives.
Still, it sounded to me like all of those Chatter streams could get overwhelming. However, Roche compared Chatter to Twitter in that users tend to follow only the streams that are relevant to them. It's easy to drop out of a Chatter stream when your input is no longer required. Calling it a "new way of working," Roche said:
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.
Chatter will work natively with any application, like FinancialForce Accounting, that is built on Salesforce's Force.com development platform. Applications not built on Force.com, not so much. The proprietary nature of the cloud may be a pretty big sticking point for companies with lots of legacy applications and/or those who just don't like the idea of vendor lock-in.