Enterprise social networking software, which offers social media capabilities adapted for workplace collaboration like employee profiles, activity streams, microblogging and document sharing, has evolved from a "nice to have" to a "should have" status in enterprises.
Picking up on that shift, Microsoft plunked down more than $1 billion last summer to buy Yammer -- at the time a leading independent provider of ESN software -- in order to boost ESN capabilities primarily in its collaboration server SharePoint and also in other products like Office, Lync, Outlook and Dynamics.
While Microsoft has been busy working on integrating Yammer with SharePoint behind the scenes, it's now clear that the effort is complex and that a fusion of the products will take at least two more years to complete.
For now, the integration deliverables will be modest. Microsoft said in March that Office 365 customers will get the option this summer to replace SharePoint Online's activity-stream component with Yammer's activity stream.
In this basic integration, when users click on the Yammer link, it'll open up a new browser window and ask them to sign into Yammer. In the same timeframe, Microsoft will deliver a Yammer application that will let users embed a Yammer group feed into a SharePoint site, both with SharePoint Online and with SharePoint 2013 servers installed on customer premises. Microsoft will also make it possible for customers to replace the newsfeed in SharePoint 2013 servers installed on premise.
Later in the year, the integration will deepen with a single sign-on and the inclusion of Yammer in the Office 365 interface. Yammer will also gain integration with Office Web Apps, the browser-based version of the Office productivity suite, before the end of the year.
In 2014, Office 365 customers can expect integration between Yammer and other Office 365 components beyond SharePoint, such as Lync and Exchange. Yammer is also being integrated with Microsoft Dynamics enterprise software.
SharePoint, first launched about a dozen years ago, has been the 800 pound gorilla of collaboration servers for a long time, but it has struggled to keep up on the enterprise social networking front.
Microsoft increased SharePoint's native ESN features in the 2010 and in the latest 2013 version of the product, but as its acquisition of Yammer shows, even the company recognizes it needs to do more.
"The issue with SharePoint has been that enterprise social moves very fast and SharePoint doesn't, because it's a big, complex product" that does many other things, says Forrester Research analyst Rob Koplowitz.
In fact, SharePoint's ESN limitations opened up the opportunities for other vendors to come out with products that augment or replace SharePoint for ESN.
"The interesting thing right now is that we're starting to see a maturing market with some emerging leaders," Koplowitz says.
So what should be the strategy for CIOs regarding SharePoint, Yammer and competing ESN tools at this market's crossroads? Below we offer analysis criteria and suggestions.
Not All ESN Vendors Are Created Equal
Companies that make ESN software fall into three categories: collaboration platform companies, business application vendors and specialty players.
Microsoft falls into the first category, along with others like IBM with its Connections product and Cisco with WebEx Social. These are big software vendors that have other collaboration and communication products.
Then there are enterprise application vendors that have added ESN complements for their core ERP and CRM suites. That's the case of Salesforce.com with its Chatter product and of SAP with Jam. Middleware vendor Tibco has an ESN product called Tibbr.
Finally, there are the smaller niche players like Jive Software, Socialtext and NewsGator which focus solely or primarily on their own ESN products.
Thus, a criteria for CIOs, especially those whose organizations aren't yet using ESN software, could be to look at the vendors they're already doing business with.
"See what vendors you have existing relationships with and may prefer to work with," says Larry Cannell, a Gartner analyst.
There are pros and cons that are evident on the surface for vendors in each category. The vendors in the first two categories are larger, with more resources, and thus can be assumed to be more stable. They can also offer the promise of broader software stacks that are natively integrated with their ESN components.
However, they will inevitably approach ESN from their ownperspectives, and it's not clear to Cannell which one will emerge as the most appropriate one.
"Is ESN an extension of other unified communications, collaboration and email products? Or is it an extension of business applications," he said. "We don't know how that's going to shake out yet. There are credible arguments on both sides."
Moreover, the smaller specialists not only focus exclusively on ESN, but they also often find it easier to move faster when adapting their products to customer feedback and technology innovations. They also don't have to comply with the competitive mandates of a larger corporate parent, and can thus be more agnostic in their partner relationships and third-party software integrations.
Determine Your Level of Comfort with the Cloud
A key consideration for CIOs should be their organization's willingness or reluctance to have their ESN software running in a public cloud.
ESN is most effective when it becomes an underlying layer of social collaboration capabilities that are integrated into the applications employees use on a daily basis, whether it's email clients, CRM software, ERP applications, office productivity applications or video conferencing wares. Obviously, the data involved in all of those applications can be highly sensitive.
Thus, IT leaders need to decide whether their ESN deployments will be all on premises, all in the cloud, or in a hydrid scenario, and then look into what the different vendors offer.
In the case of Microsoft, most SharePoint deployments to date have been on customer premises. However, the company has made it clear that the future of SharePoint and Office products in general is in the cloud via Office 365.
So Microsoft will support both models, but it is placing the development and innovation emphasis on the cloud-only Yammer and on SharePoint Online, the cloud version of the product that is part of the Office 365 cloud collaboration and communication suite.
It's not clear to what extent Microsoft will be able to maintain in sync SharePoint Online and SharePoint server, assuming SharePoint Online will be upgraded much more frequently and Yammer will remain cloud-only, Cannell said.
Koplowitz added: "If Yammer is the bet, then what about those folks who want SharePoint but can't go to the cloud?"
In light of those questions, CIOs who want to keep their SharePoint server on premises can rely on ESN add-ons like NewsGator's, which has been one of the preferred add-ons for years, and remains especially attractive for companies who aren't comfortable using SharePoint Online.
NewsGator's Social Sites is designed for SharePoint implementations on customer premises or in dedicated private clouds. Recently, the company has been working on extending Social Sites so that it will function not just as a SharePoint add on, but also play that part for other collaboration and business applications.
Other products offer cloud, on premises and hybrid deployment options, including IBM Connections, Jive and Tibbr, while vendors like Salesforce.com stick with a cloud-only approach with its Chatter product.
ESN Software May Be Used in Your Company Without Your Knowledge - and That Would Be Good
Some CIOs still pondering what ESN software to choose would be surprised to find out that employees have done an end-run around IT and adopted ESN tools already.
In fact, a lot of Yammer's adoption has happened in this way, as pockets of employees and managers sign up for the service and invite colleagues to join their network without consulting the IT department.
"See if a network already exists, find out who started it and learn how it's being used," Cannell says.
CIOs and IT managers on this quest should refrain from shutting down the networks they find.
"Don't look at this like a policy violation but as an opportunity to learn how you could use these tools," he said.
IT leaders should establish a relationship with these first adopters and build on their interest for ESN in order to get others enthused and eager to adopt ESN software.
"This isn't email or audio conferencing, where you put the service out and people naturally pick it up," he says. "We're not there yet with ESN."
If You Don't Want to Wait for the SharePoint-Yammer Integration, Look Elsewhere, or Keep What You Have if It works
IBM's Connections, first released in 2007, has been a solid product, in particular as an ESN complement for SharePoint, according to Koplowitz.
In its most recent release this year, Connections is aiming to become a broader competitor with stronger document and content management capabilities and improved analytics features. IBM is also pushing ESN bundles tailored for human resources and marketing departments specifically.
A few years ago, Electrolux, a Swedish appliance vendor, decided it needed to give its employees an ESN tool that would help spur innovation and collaboration. The company used SharePoint, but quickly decided the native ESN capabilities in the product at the time weren't enough for its needs, and deployed IBM Connections. Today, the company uses both products -- SharePoint for more static intranet functions like team sites, and IBM Connections for social collaboration interactions like microblogging and activity streams.
"We wouldn't have been able to accomplish what we wanted to do with the standalone SharePoint," said Ralf Larsson, Electrolux's director of online employee engagement and development.
"Connections and SharePoint can co-exist because they are really good at different areas," he added.
As for Jive Software, Koplowitz sees it taking advantage of its ability to move fast and to be agnostic with regards to its interoperability with third-party business software.
Cannell shares a similar opinion. "Jive is a very viable vendor and a leader," he said.
Salesforce.com's Chatter has also become a dominant product in the ESN market, according to Koplowitz, who also said he has been surprised by the success of Tibbr. "Tibco's made it. Tibbr has risen above the fray and sold very well," he said.
Cannell calls Tibbr "one of the most interesting" ESN products.
InterPortPolice, an inter-governmental agency for collaboration among airport and seaport law enforcement authorities in the U.S. and abroad, decided to adopt an ESN tool recently. Early in its selection process it crossed out SharePoint because of its poor mobile access, a recurrent criticism of the product that lasts to this day.
Instead, it chose Tibbr, whose mobile support met the agency's needs. "Ninety percent of our people are away from their desks 90 percent of the time," said Jay Grant, Secretary General of InterPortPolice.
It also found SharePoint's enterprise social collaboration features lacking, and thought the product better suited for document management tasks thanfor people-centric collaboration, he said. Tibbr, on the other hand, gives the agency the type of social collaboration interaction it was looking to provide its users.
But Be Aware that Microsoft Promises Big Rewards for Those Who Go With SharePoint-Yammer
The rewards from the deep integration of Yammer with SharePoint, Office, Outlook, Lync, and other Microsoft products will be tremendous, according to Adam Pisoni, a Yammer co-founder who is now an engineering general manager in the Microsoft Office Division.
"From a product perspective, combining social with Office and SharePoint is going to yield a product that has the most integrated experience around document collaboration, creation, co-authoring and social than any other offers out there," he said.
"It's an extreme breadth of capabilities that we're bringing together seamlessly in a social way," he added.
As the fusion of Yammer with SharePoint and the other Office 365 tools progresses, the interfaces and user experience will be unified and eventually become a single product that tightly integrates all of the functionality.
"The end result will be greater than the sum of its parts," Pisoni said.
That vision is exciting for Dawn Gartin, collaboration manager at Manhattan Associates, a supply chain software vendor.
The company started using SharePoint in 2007, but about 18 months ago decided it had to add an additional ESN tool. It picked Yammer, a few months before Microsoft acquired it.
The sooner Microsoft is able to fully integrate the products, the better, as far as she's concerned.
Manhattan Associaties, which uses SharePoint 2010 on premises, is now drafting its plan for upgrading to SharePoint 2013 and possibly shifting some tasks for SharePoint Online, thus having a hybrid deployment.
The company uses SharePoint for its intranet and Yammer for employee interaction and collaboration.
Its users much prefer Yammer, which was quietly introduced by the CFO and achieved 96 percent adoption in about a month among the about 2,400 employees. SharePoint, after six years of use, is nowhere near that level of adoption.
"SharePoint for us isn't as widely well liked for a variety of reasons that aren't all necessarily SharePoint's problem," she said.
"That's part of the lesson we're looking at as we move forward to SharePoint 2013 and with the integration of Yammer: How that will all work together from a collaboration standpoint as our platform. How we can help the user get what they want from wherever they are," she said.
The company, which has a BYOD (bring your own device) policy regarding smartphones and tablets, is also eager to see SharePoint extend its mobile access, she said.
"It'll be important for us to see that kind of functionality on all of the devices," she said.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.