Companies ponder role of enterprise social networks in workflows

As social media tools elbow their way into enterprises, IT is struggling to figure out where they’ll do the most good -- and the least harm.

As social media tools continue to infiltrate companies and Microsoft SharePoint gains as a back-end platform for collaboration, the potential of enterprise social networks to disrupt business processes and workflows gives manufacturing IT departments new opportunities -- and risks -- to ponder.

Some will have to decide where to place the new collaboration platforms in their existing network infrastructures and how much they should integrate with enterprise applications. And will ad hoc social media tools like Twitter and enterprise social networks like Yammer ever become the preferred systems of record for carrying out important business, or will they be limited to informal discussions?

The ability of employees to deploy most social media tools without IT involvement is forcing management’s hand.

“It’s that same chicken-and-egg problem,” said Catherine White, a research analyst at IDC Manufacturing Insights, based in Framingham, Mass. “Do we just allow people to use it, or do we lock it down and have IT control over it?”

Vendors push enterprise versions of social media
Social media is already the reality in many enterprises, according to Michael Fauscette, IDC’s group vice president for software business solutions. Fauscette said that in a late-2010 study by IDC, 41% of companies said they were using the technology.

Manufacturers have good reason to look for fresh alternatives to the user interfaces many have had for 10 years, Fauscette said, and they’re feeling pressure from employees to adopt social media. But they also worry that opening new channels for collaboration could make their intellectual property (IP) less secure.

“Things that expose your IP are very scary,” Fauscette said. “I guarantee employees are using Google Docs and other tools. There’s probably more exposure than companies realize.”

A small group of vendors is trying to meet the demand for business versions of Facebook or Twitter by selling enterprise social network platforms that allow companies to set up internal social networks and manage them securely. The IDC analysts named Jive Software, Moxie Software, Neudesic, NewsGator Technologies, Socialcast, Spigit, Tibco Software and Yammer as vendors with such dedicated platforms, while Boardwalktech embeds tools for collaborating on supply chain, financial and IT management where it often happens already -- inside Excel spreadsheets.

Fauscette said most of the vendors provide compliance and governance features that can reassure companies, especially those in heavily regulated industries like pharmaceuticals and aerospace, that they won’t run afoul of regulations once employees start doing business on the platforms.

Three integration routes to enterprise social collaboration
To be viable as conduits of a manufacturer’s business processes, social media tools have to go beyond simply enabling person-to-person communication and provide hooks into enterprise applications such as ERP.

“When you talk about trying to extend social to your old applications, that’s significantly harder,” Fauscette said. “Implementation’s not hard, but integration is.”

Enterprise social networks follow three front-end integration models. Standalone platforms can have their own prebuilt integrations that provide two-way communication to third-party applications, or the applications can contain embedded links to the platforms. Some applications just have their own proprietary collaboration tools.

SAP’s enterprise social network, StreamWork Enterprise Edition, follows the standalone model. According to Holly Simmons, SAP’s senior director of on-demand marketing, direct integration to the SAP product life cycle management and CRM modules lets people collaborate in early-stage product design inside a “single thread” in StreamWork. New feeds or activities originating in those applications show up in StreamWork, and related workflows, such as expense approvals, can be handled there.

One manufacturer, which Simmons wouldn’t name, plans to use StreamWork to collaborate with its partners in demand planning and product design and pull data from its SAP system, which is geographically dispersed and has numerous extensions like SAP CRM. She said many of the manufacturers eyeing StreamWork say they conduct too much of their internal and external collaboration over email, an inefficient collaboration platform that strains IT resources.

Another platform with a strong integration story, Tibco’s tibbr, could benefit from its parent’s experience in middleware.

“There’s a lot of Tibco technology that runs underneath,” said Sriram Chakravarthy, director of product and engineering for tibbr.

Product development has been a popular application among high-tech manufacturers, according to Chakravarthy. “People are starting to tie their applications into the stream,” he said. Updates from project management applications, for example, appear in tibbr, and as of last month’s 3.0 release, Tibco claims users can act on event streams from other systems without leaving tibbr.

Vendors regularly announce integration deals. “We’re starting to see more of this social collaboration plus the ERP system,” Fauscette said, citing a partnership between Yammer and NetSuite, a maker of Software as a Service (SaaS) ERP. Yammer said the integration happens through a new application programming interface (API) called Activity Stream API that other third-party developers can use to embed links in their products and send data to the platform. Another SaaS ERP maker, Plex Systems, announced integration with Salesforce.com’s Chatter platform.

Besides SAP, other major players in enterprise applications are building their own collaboration tools. Chatter is a prominent example, as are Oracle’s Beehive and Fusion WebCenter, according to White.

Chakravarthy said it’s too early to say which model customers ultimately will prefer. “Some customers want to have a small widget in their ERP or CRM,” he said, so they can quickly start ad hoc, contextual discussions. “Other companies want to pull data into a new collaboration tool.”

Fauscette has also seen interest in the embedded approach. “You can get it into the point of your workflow,” Fauscette said. “To the person doing the work, it’s invisible.”

Almost everyone integrates with SharePoint, which makes the Microsoft collaboration platform another option for back-end integration to popular applications.

While SharePoint 2010 introduced substantial social media features, the new enterprise social networks almost universally employ it for its traditional purpose as a document repository, according to Fauscette.

“It makes a great back-end platform,” he said. “I don’t believe, by itself, it makes a great tool for collaboration. You need another tool that helps connect people.”

Moving business onto enterprise social networks
Chakravarthy said organizational issues are the biggest impediments to social media becoming serious business platforms. “Most organizations are slowly starting to embrace the culture of sharing,” he said. “It’s not something that comes naturally to enterprises.”

When you talk about trying to extend social to your old applications, that’s significantly harder. Implementation’s not hard, but integration is.

--Michael Fauscette, group vice president for software business solutions at IDC

Fauscette has ideas on how to advance the ball. For one, he suggests making applications that people need to do their jobs accessible only from the new platform.

The standard advice about executive buy-in takes a new twist here. “Have executives support this and put things on there that they only put there, and employees need,” such as holiday schedules, Fauscette said. “Or use it as a live reporting tool for the next company all-hands meeting. You’re going to go there because you have to. The more you can make it part of the system of record, the more it’s going to be integrated into their workflow.”

Individual incentives can also drive adoption. Companies can modify compensation programs and other incentives to reward people for working across department silos. “Talk to specific workers about how they can improve their jobs,” Fauscette said. “Schedule a hands-on activity at launch, such as a brown-bag session.

“Part of the problem with social tools, especially social collaboration tools, is they benefit greatly from the network effect. The more people use the tool, the more valuable it is. You have to come up with ways to draw people in. It takes a lot of change management and training.”

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