What’s different about enterprise social software?

When people talk about “enterprise social software”, they envision “Facebook for the enterprise” or “Twitter for the enterprise. But creating enterprise social software is a matter of adapting patterns from the public web, not copying identically.

What is “Enterprise Social Networking”

In the public web, social networking software has become embedded in people’s lives, as a way to stay in touch and to coordinate. Similar patterns will bolster collegial connections, expertise discovery, and collaboration. However, there are some significant differences between a social network on the web and a network behind the enterprise firewall.

What is Friending?

In a public web social network, the primary gesture is identifying others as “friends”. The graph of friends delineates the boundaries in which each individual shares information. Contact information is assumed to be private unless shared with a friend.

But in a business social network, the lines of visibility are defined differently. In a plain-vanilla corporate directory, the assumption is that every employee has the right to see contact information for everyone else. You don’t need to mark “Dale” in marketing as a friend in order to see his phone number.

More than that, what on earth is a “friend”? Will people simply go around “friending” high-ranking executives? Should I need to have to specifically mark my colleagues in the product group as “friends”? What does it mean if someone is not my “friend.” The gesture of explicit friending doesn’t have much value, and has plenty of potential annoyance and harm.

In Socialtext, we use the “following” gesture common to Twitter and Friendfeed, and don’t support “friending.”

Where does Profile data come from?

In public web social software, people type in their contact information, alma mater, significant others, pets. In an organization, there is often already a repository of basic contact information in the corporate directory. HR and IT departments share responsiblity for keeping that information up to date.

Therefore, a business social network needs to draw on corporate systems of record for basic contact information. Admins need to decide what information comes from the corporate directory, and what information users should add themselves.

What are the Activities in an Activity Feed

One of the features that’s most compelling about Facebook is the ability for people to see updates on their friends activities. Talia is dating / no longer dating / once again dating Jeremy. Bob just watched xyz movie. Scott is reading xyz book.

This activity stream is compelling inside the firewall, for a different set of activities. People will be interested in updates on what their colleagues are working on, what documents they have edited, what key events have happened in enterprise systems. For example, “Shawn closed the support escalation ticket for Major Customer Q.” It would be nice, and foster adoption, to have some “small talk” applications that enable people to stay in touch regarding ordinary life. It can be highly valuable for the business to be able to be notified of important work-related updates.

In social networks, the context of the activity feed is one’s social life. In an enterprise social network, the content is one’s work activities in enterprise systems, documents, and processes.

What does an admin do?
In private label social public social networks, administrators do things like configure the available features and the fields in a profile. In business social networks, administrators integrate the social network with existing directories and applications. They play a greater role in defining communities and creating social boundaries.

In a consumer social network, the individual assumes that she has control over privacy and disclosure and there is controversy if those assumptions are violated by service providers. In a business social network, the administrator has more control. In some cases, this level of control is good and appropriate. Competing customers shouldn’t see each others information, and the activities of the M&A groups should be secret. An appropriate level of business confidentiality, like an appropriate level of personal confidentiality, increases sharing and honesty.

In some cases, admins are familiar with applications deployed on a “need to know” basis, and want use these familiar practices to set up applications designed to gain value by increased sharing. There are gray areas that will need to be worked out in software design, effective practice, and cultural evolution.

Next in the series: What’s different about enterprise Twitter

2 thoughts on “What’s different about enterprise social software?”

  1. Well said.

    It gives me food for thought about social software in the environment I’m now working in, a non-profit consortium mostly made up of higher ed institutions. I agree that as in the enterprise, “following” is a better metaphor than “friending”. Unlike the enterprise we have no firewall and no central HR infrastructure to rely on.

    One approach to profile construction that I’ve seen inside universities is to use cheap student labor to build provisional faculty profiles (often by mining or simply linking to the chaos of departmental profiles, personal pages, CVs, etc.) and then mail each prof a password and an invitation to correct errors and omissions. I’ve never heard any numbers on the percentage of profs who accept the invitation. Trying to do that across institutions would no doubt introduce even more error but we may give it a shot.

    The other thing I may try for populating profiles is aggregation of a quick and dirty “lifestream”: provide slots in the profile for Facebook, Twitter, and del.icio.us accounts, blog URLs, etc. and aggregate what we can into a combined feed for that user. That way we would be able to create an environment for exploring colleagues’ personalities and interests without assuming that everyone would choose our system as their daily microblogging tool of choice.

  2. Prentiss, the aggregation model sounds promising – do you have any idea how how many faculty members use at least some public services? Have you tried FriendFeed? That is a fine tool for aggregating many different feeds and sources, and it lets you subscribe to the aggregated feed with RSS. The group features might be helpful for interest areas and departments.

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