My work with clients and when analysing different technologies means I get to see a broad selection of vendors and platforms.

And the feeling I have is that there’s an increasingly complex landscape of enterprise social technologies and approaches, which makes it very difficult for end customers to understand what’s right for their organisation.

So in this post I’ll set out some of the key considerations when choosing the right enterprise social platform for your business.

Certainly a key driver of business performance today is having the collaboration and communication capabilities to respond quickly and effectively to changing market conditions. These capabilities can nowadays be provided by a mixture of different tools and technologies, with enterprise social technologies being the most common choice for many organisations. In fact, the booming business interest in enterprise social has created a surge from all major vendors towards that space over the last few years. And that surge has led to the creation of a crowded and fast-moving technology landscape that makes choosing the right enterprise social technology a complex decision with significant financial and other consequences.

Integration with existing business apps is a “key” selection factor

Interestingly, as enterprise social products have evolved into powerful infrastructures that facilitate and support business process flow in a multitude of ways, they have also become increasingly homogeneous in terms of features and functionality. As Anthony Myers points out in his recent post A Look Back: Social Business Trends from 2013, almost all of them have now incorporated features such as activity streams, profiles, groups and embedded messages.

There is however a key differentiator for products in the enterprise social space, and that’s their ability to integrate with an organisation’s existing business application infrastructure. Given that these technologies are intended to support the work/task-focused activities and interactions of knowledge workers, it goes without saying that they need to be as least disruptive as possible to these workers’ existing environment. Therefore, selecting the tool(s) – and as importantly, the configuration and architecture – that provide the most seamless and efficient user experience, are major considerations.

Different approaches to Enterprise Social integration: Standalone vs. Embedded

Looking at the ways in which enterprise social technologies integrate with applications deployed within a business, we see two main approaches related to how products in this space can be configured to work within an existing technology ecosystem: standalone and embedded.

We hear a lot about these two terms nowadays and taking inspiration in particular from PWC’s report Transforming collaboration with social tools, as well as by the work of Ben Kepes in his Forbes’ article Enterprise Social Networks, Fabric Overlays Or Connected Services?, and Michael Fauscette in his Enterprise Irregulars’ article Enterprise Social Networks – Part 1, I’ve developed my own thinking as to what they represent which I’d like to share.

The standalone approach

The standalone approach places the enterprise social product in the middle of a business ecosystem, to provide an interface that binds together other business apps. To achieve that, enterprise social products act as “collaboration hubs” that pull-in information and content from enterprise apps, gathering it into a single space people can ‘live in’ when carrying out collaborative tasks. At the same time they link their activity streams into business applications via the use of widgets, which allows them to achieve bidirectional integration with those apps.

When deployed via this approach, enterprise social products integrate with applications from multiple different vendors, their level of integration depending on the breadth and depth of the API functionality of the application vendor they are integrating with. Examples of products that are primarily deployed as standalone solutions include Jive, IBM Connections, Socialtext and VMWare Socialcast.

The embedded approach

The embedded approach ties the enterprise social product into business apps from the same vendor to ‘infuse’ them with collaborative functionality. Some products achieve this by integrating enterprise social software components in key places within the workflow streams of enterprise apps, where user collaboration can facilitate the flow of business processes. Others achieve that by fully integrating into the application platform, which effectively turns them into enterprise social add-ons that extend the vendor’s platform with collaborative capabilities.

Examples of products that operate most powerfully when deployed as embedded solutions (but can also act as standalone solutions) include Microsoft Yammer (embedded within Office 365), SAP Jam (within SAP), Oracle Social Network (within Oracle Cloud), Salesforce Chatter (within Salesforce CRM) and Infor Ming.le (within Infor). When enterprise social products supporting this approach are deployed as embedded solutions they are likely to offer deeper integration with their corresponding applications (or platforms) since the integration features are all controlled by the same vendor.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach

While the aim of both approaches is of course to make business processes run more efficiently and effectively, they provide different benefits to the potential user. A standalone approach allows users to combine multiple streams of information in a dedicated collaborative space providing comprehensive enterprise social functionality, while an embedded approach enables users to carry out most collaborative tasks within their existing business application environment, without having to switch to a different tool specifically for collaboration purposes.

It is important to note that neither of the two approaches is necessarily better than the other. The whole concept of enterprise collaboration and communication is context-specific and therefore what might work well in a particular business scenario might not work that well in another.

Choosing the Enterprise Social solution that fits your business best

Choosing the most appropriate Enterprise Social solution (i.e. which tool(s) and how to configure and deploy them) requires decisions on the right approach for your organisation (i.e. standalone or embedded). And this means first answering some fundamental questions relating to:

  1. Business requirements: what specific opportunities and challenges is the business trying to address through improved collaboration and communication? What barriers currently exist and what role can technology play in overcoming these?

  2. Employee/user requirements: what are the individual level use cases for technology-enabled collaboration and communication? How will you facilitate a transition  to more open and collaborative ways of working while minimising risks and disruption?

  3. Technology landscape: what is the current technology environment (in terms of architecture, governance, vendors and so forth)? How committed is the business to certain key vendors or workflows? What needs to be considered from an integration and continuity perspective?

And of course the above factors need to be considered from multiple perspectives, including current landscape vs. future vision, technology vs. cultural / behavioural drivers and global vs. local requirements.

By defining your requirements in this way you’ll be well positioned to navigate through this complex technological landscape and start evaluating the different approaches and particular vendor solutions that will best meet the needs of your organisation.

If this is a challenge you’re facing you may be interested in this case study about our work with a leading global technology provider to define their collaboration and communication technology requirements.

And if you’ve got any comments or thoughts on the above please leave a comment below.

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