Social enterprise tools: an industry in denial?

Social enterprise apps abound these days, and more pop up with every hackathon and demo day. But when it comes to key points like app quality and company profitability, I think this whole section of the tech industry is paddling up a certain river in Egypt.

For example, Yammer recently released a report stating its user base grew and sales tripled after being acquired by Microsoft. But if you paid attention to Yammer Android app download stats, they were flat during the same period — not a particularly good sign.

Even Marc Benioff’s Midas touch doesn’t seem to help enterprise app Chatter. A recent survey of 300 Salesforce clients showed that Chatter reception is quite cold.

We are suffering from a major case of denial. We tend to tell each other only the good news, totally ignoring social intranet problems, as if they don’t exist. What are these problems? I believe there are three major ones.

Quality

The high quality required for enterprise apps simply isn’t there. I use Android, and the average rating for a social intranet app in Google Play is, well, average — barely three stars.

We talk about the advent of the BYOD era, but does anyone have a mobile app that has the same functionality as a web app? Yammer’s status page shows a major network-wide problem occurring at least once every month, and others simply chose not to have status pages.

If you want us to use your software, it actually has to work first. It’s not an unreasonable request.

Too much hype

Teens have problems like pregnancy, truancy, drug use, low grades. They also use Facebook. If I were to suggest that I can solve these problems by creating a Facebook page, I’d be rightfully laughed at.

Yet this is often the sales tactics in my industry: five bucks a month per employee and all or most of those pesky problems with productivity and barriers to collaboration magically go away. It may increase sales, but this strategy all but guarantees a blowback in the future.

There certainly are many instances when adopting enterprise 2.0 solutions in certain industries or even departments has an immediate and dramatic effect. Intuit QuickBooks is a great piece of business software, but its marginal utility drops like a rock the further you move from the accounting department. If we can’t deliver company-wide improvements with our product, we are much better off concentrating on specific niches where the measurable impact of using social intranet is significant and targeting only those.

Technological confusion

There’s something not only arrogant but repressive of innovation about the “We’ve decided to copy Facebook and are now waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with us” attitude that characterized some of our industry.

Users of our solutions have been using LinkedIn, DropBox, and Skype for years now, and they don’t expect less when they move to enterprise services. The biggest word in the industry now is consumerization of enterprise technology. This means that users doing their part to advance the technology, but industry insiders aren’t doing theirs. We seem to have forgotten how not that long ago it was enterprise technology like email and network chat and shared file servers that inspired consumer use later on.

These are the major three problems we have to deal with, as I see it personally. And as far as solutions go, I think they are fairly obvious too.

Less social, more work tools

Google is actually the best enterprise 2.0 company, even if we don’t often think of it this way. Google is successful because it focuses on tools that make working together easy; think of Google Docs or Google Hangout or Google Calendar.

The company also quickly killed Google Wave, while others are still waging a war on corporate email which is likely to be as successful and war on drugs has been.

I know that a tool-centric approach works, because we use it at my own company. We simply looked at tools that businesses already use (CRM, project management, file sharing, calendars, absence reports, business processes, and so on) and simply added social options into those.

Trickling up

To borrow an analogy from politics, you can have a Karl Rove approach (a clever top-to-bottom manipulation based constant polling of changing public fears and attitudes), but you can also have Occupy Wall Street, a bottom-up movement that comes as a result of regular folks of getting fed up with nothing changing for years.

We’ve got the Rove part down, but we now need to come up with a feedback mechanism that would make it easy for actual users of enterprise 2.0 tools to influence development of our solutions. Again, Google scores high, because the Google Apps marketplace, warts and all, is certainly a mechanism that addresses this issue. Others, like Huddle and Asana are already following the suit, even if the result isn’t automatically guaranteed.

Getting nichey

They might all be called ‘social networks’, but Facebook is very different from Twitter, which is very different from Instagram, which is very different from Foursquare.

It’s quite likely that we’ll see a rise of niche-specific solutions, because a social intranet for realtors, who don’t spend much time in the office, must be very different from social intranet for software developers. The logic of business simply dictates it.

This diversity in approaches is just starting to appear. Surely many of those startups will fail, but it is equally likely that some of the biggest players will repeat MySpace history, which failed to evolve and essentially died, despite being the most popular social networking site from 2005 to 2008.

Dmitry Valyanov is CEO of Bitrix24, a cloud-based social intranet SaaS for business, which is free for companies with 12 employees or fewer.

Image credit: ericconstantineau/Flickr


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