Salesforce.com Chatter Teaches Lessons About Social Networks

We've all heard the noise about the Chatter application. But it's not just noise, it's a serious experiment in applying social networking inside the enterprise. What can you learn from it for your other IT initiatives?

Earlier this month, at the CIO Perspectives event in San Francisco, I got an ear-full from attendees about social networking systems. How should they be harnessed? Should they be allowed in the Enterprise? How do you make them more than just a waste of time?

Why Salesforce.com Chatter Matters

Salesforce.com Unveils 'Chatter-Enabled' Apps

Most of the interest was in applying Facebook-like interfaces and lightweight apps built on Adobe AIR. One of the sessions gave a really great example of federated information in the Grapevine app demo.

But that's mainly a DIY world: apps that can sensibly be built on new frameworks and APIs. There's certainly a lot to be learned there. But there's also much to be learned about enterprise social networking from Chatter, the collaboration system that's soon to be defaulted "on" in Salesforce.com.

Given the size of Salesforce.com, Chatter is likely to be dominant in business settings. And at their annual user conference, Salesforce is going to be enabling Chatter for as many as 20,000 attendees, surely the largest social networking session ever congregated in a single location. In doing this, they're likely to break some new ground you can profit from, even if you never buy their product.

Social Lessons

There's still a lot to learn, but it's been clear from the beginning that some new constraints on communication are needed when using social networking in a business environment. The goal of Chatter is to inform in a non-intrusive way, replacing maybe 10 percent of internal e-mails with a kiosk style of information disbursal. For that to work, IT leaders need to provide guidance on the content and style of communications. Users shouldn't be Tweeting on Chatter, and they shouldn't be making Facebook posts either. To keep the signal-to-noise ratio high, users need to post pithy content, not idle messages. Users also need to know where to post, particularly in a system with lots of business objects.

On the receiving end of Chatter, users need to be selective about what they subscribe to. Managers can be quickly overwhelmed with inbound messages if they don't trim the number of feeds to the bare essentials. There will be a lot of experimentation with automation around the subscription and filtering of Chatter feeds, and I expect that someone will come up with a set of Chatter profiles that feed the habits (and attention spans) of managers and executives.

At a broader level, the social network needs to be adjusted to the politics and information-sharing habits of the organization it's being deployed into. In Facebook and Twitter, nobody really worries about users who may be politically competing with each other. In an enterprise environment, the Chatter designers couldn't ignore that reality.

Technical / Security Lessons

At the core of social networking is an operational truth: users cannot be given a whole lot of leeway and flexibility if the system is going to really scale. Of course they can be presented with switches and pick lists for features, but there must be hard limits.

In Facebook and Twitter, nearly everything is out in the open by default. Locking things down requires explicit user action. In contrast, Chatter needs a pretty tight security model, as it provides visibility into all kinds of CRM records. The compromise is that a user's personal profile and wall are open, but all system objects are by default locked down. Even when users gain access to a business object (such as an opportunity or a case), the system's security and sharing model is rigorously followed.

Another big difference between Facebook/Twitter and conventional enterprise applications is the type and duration of user sessions. Social networking usage tends to be intermittent and from mobile devices: the average Facebook user is on the social network about 25 minutes a day. Access tends to be event-driven, to post a message or to look for an update about something the user is interested in.

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