The significance of Salesforce.com’s 'Chatter'

22 Jul 2010 View Comments
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Salesforce.com to me is a bit like the boy who cried ‘Wolf!”. Every press release it issues contains claims of industry revolution, even if all that’s being announced is some incremental development of its service portfolio or another partnership of convenience.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think Salesforce.com is a great company with a great set of offerings, but the continuous stream of evangelism does make it hard to distinguish hype from reality.

It’s because of this that I almost missed the significance of ‘Chatter’, which is the new social networking element added into the Salesforce.com portfolio that provides what on the surface looks like basic Twitter or Facebook update type functionality, but on a secure/private basis.

At the time Chatter was announced towards the tail end of last year, way ahead of it being available on general release (as usual), I didn’t take much notice of it. After all, it seemed a bit niche, closed and limited compared to the more horizontal enterprise social media plays by the likes of IBM, Microsoft and Oracle.

This week, however, Tony and I attended an industry analyst gathering at which a number of Salesforce.com customers shared their early experiences of Chatter (which is now, by the way, available to be turned on by any subscriber to the core application services for no additional fee).

As the customers told their stories, it gradually dawned on me that there was something really significant going on here. To understand this, we need to recap on some of my previous analysis.

One of the things I have always had a problem with is the ‘build it and they will come’ approach to implementing social media in a business context. Having spoken with people involved in larger scale ‘Enterprise 2.0’ rollouts, there appears to be a couple of recurring challenges.

The first is concerned with adoption – people are often nervous or unsure of how to participate in a social network in the workplace. Driving adoption, even in organisations with a progressive and permissive culture, can therefore be harder than you might think.

The other challenge is concerned with who does actually participate. Confidence and willingness to communicate does not necessarily correlate with an individual’s ability to contribute value to others. To put it bluntly, there is a difference between noisiness and usefulness.

In an open and unstructured environment you often see a few prolific communicators dominating the network, with some of your most insightful staff with a huge amount of value to share on business matters put off by the seemingly ad hoc nature of the medium. Ask them a direct question and they will respond, but expect them to volunteer something unprompted and you could be waiting quite a while.

It is for this reason that I have always advised that social media type collaboration solutions be deployed in a structured and objective manner to support specific business processes or specific groups of users, at least in the first instance.

This provides a clear context for the initiative which makes it easier to assess impact and nudge things in the right direction. If you know where you are looking to drive benefit, e.g. in the sales process, customer service area, or within R&D, you are likely to achieve a lot more than if you take a scattergun approach and cross your fingers that something useful will emerge from somewhere.

From a business perspective, a more focused and structured approach also provides purpose and an important set of prompts to which less gregarious members of the workforce are more likely to respond.

If you make it clear, for example, that sales people uncovering an opportunity above a certain value or for a brand new product will be expected to reach out to their colleagues for relevant ideas and input using the enterprise social networking system, it is clear how they are supposed to participate. Similar techniques can be used in other parts of the business and end result is a much more balanced and useful set of dialogues, with much broader participation.

Of course ultimately, you are aiming for use of social networking to really take hold and proliferate across the organisation, breaking down boundaries and achieving that step change in efficiency and effectiveness that the Enterprise 2.0 advocates often highlight.

The point is that you can’t simply throw tools at the workforce then stand back and let them work it out for themselves. Well you can, but in the meantime there will be obvious applications of the technology that drive clear and tangible benefits that are likely to be overlooked.

Coming back to Chatter, it is significant because it was born out of a process-centric application environment. If you consider Salesforce.com’s core applications, the context is sales or service management, but it was also useful to hear from FinancialForce.com at the abovementioned event that has produced an enhanced version of Chatter (Chatterbox) and embedded it into its Force.com-based accounting solution.

This solid results-oriented heritage means there is a clear focus on tangible benefit, and the one thing that stood out as I listened to the speakers was that they were constantly referring to repeatable use-cases in which improved collaboration leads to direct improvement in performance, exactly in the spirit I have previously outlined.

With this in mind, Chatter represents a great opportunity for existing Salesforce.com customers to start exploring the benefits of enterprise social networking in a business-like manner.

It is particularly useful that the new capability is being made available at no additional cost if you subscribe to the core sales or service applications, as it can be difficult making the business case for explicit investment in this area.

The ability role the solution out independently of the core applications to the broader employee base is then provided through a Chatter-only subscription, so you won’t be constrained by the scope of your existing user base.

Salesforce.com would obviously like non-subscribers to look at Chatter as a generic social networking solution for the enterprise, whether the core sales and service applications are seen as relevant or not. In this sense, the company has jumped into what is becoming quite a crowded market, and measured against the competition might struggle to compete on pure functionality terms.

Social media applications are a natural for deployment via the SaaS model, however, so there is every chance the company can carve out a slice of the action for itself despite the relative immaturity of its solution.

In the meantime, my feeling is that Salesforce.com with Chatter is likely to do a lot more to prove the concept of enterprise social media than most of the players with more generic solutions that have hitherto been hogging the action.

Salesforce.com has always been about helping its customers drive improved business performance in a pretty direct manner and that’s not a bad mindset to back up a social networking play.


Update:

While talking about this post internally, I got the following comments back from the team:

Tony: The only thing I might add is the need for users to have good filters to stop chatter overwhelming them, regardless of good intentions, as more and more people get into ‘social’ habits. This is something that is missing from the initial implementation.

Jon: Having used Chatter a little bit, it’s also good because Chatter events are created automatically, as people go about their business – creating a socially friendly, visible audit trail that other people can interact with. So it’s not just that it integrates with a specific process, but that the process spins off bits of chat without you having to do anything.

Tony’s comment highlights that Chatter is still very much at the version 1.0 level in terms of sophistication, and I would add to the filtering related restriction he mentions the absence of any concrete plan for Chatter to span organisational boundaries or integrate in a two way manner with public social networking services. These are areas Salesforce.com says it is looking at, however.

The point Jon makes is very relevant, and I would add to this how useful it is to be able to have a document or information/transaction entity at the centre of a chat, e.g. a sales opportunity, proposal, customer support case, meeting agenda, and so on. This reinforces the relevance of Chatter to process optimisation.

Finally, I'll take this opportunity to thank the speakers at the event I mentioned for a very informative and entertaining set of presentations. These included Martin Reents from Conject, Kimberly Jansen from Misys, Louis Nauges from Revevol and Liz Schofield from FinancialForce.com.

By Dale Vile, research director at Freeform Dynamics.

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