While agreement around the core concepts of "social software" has remained elusive, the underlying phenomenon is quite real. To date, industry analysts have quite properly focused on the cultural and organizational aspects of social software technologies (blogs, wikis, tag clouds and such) in the enterprise. "The sociology is more important than the technology," you often hear, and I couldn’t agree more.
But the technology still matters, and it turns out that social software tools differ substantially in functionality, maturity, approach and support. Moreover, social software applications have raised concerns in the enterprise: around privacy, security, intellectual property (IP) protection and compliance. IT managers also face more prosaic but equally important considerations of reliability, scalability and sustainability of the software and vendors alike. So let’s look a bit more closely at what constitutes social software.
The social workplace
It seems like nearly all new technologies today get labeled "social." Witness the terms social software, social computing, social networking and so on. Let’s acknowledge first off, though, that work has always been social. Even before the dawn of civilization, hunters and gatherers had to work collectively to find sustenance and shelter.
Nevertheless, the reason social computing has risen to the fore lately is that most modern software—including "enterprise" software of various stripes—has tended to assume that participants were automatons glued to their screens in lonely cubicles. For some mass information processing environments, there might be a kernel of truth to this, but in the real world, we know two things are true:
- People are social animals, even at work (some would say especially at work).
- Knowledge workers are not automatons.
Of course, that varies from job to job, from industry to industry, and from culture to culture. Nevertheless, enterprise systems that fail to support people as social animals typically have poor usability and reduced effectiveness. Moreover, social computing assumes that virtual interaction has value in its own right, separate from any traditional work product.
Meanwhile, notions of "traditional work" are changing as enterprises evolve. You see more virtual teams, more ad hoc projects and greater demand from senior leadership to dissolve internal and external boundaries (frequently the very boundaries those leaders created). Social software constitutes an attempt—many would argue a renewed attempt—to give knowledge workers the facilities they need to successfully work together in that environment.
Vendors have taken notice of the phenomenon and developed dedicated social software applications. They include tools that have existed for some time but have lately reached critical mass—including blogs, wikis and forums—as well as newer functionality like social bookmarking, profiles and public, branded "community" spaces.
Vendors are also "socializing" existing software products. On the main, that is a good thing, but it should not be confused with dedicated social software tools. In the absence of accepted integration standards, adding things like tags, profiles and instant messaging services to longstanding applications can create just another set of siloed communities.
What about Enterprise 2.0?
For better or worse, social software exists within a broader phenomenon that many label Enterprise 2.0 or Web 2.0 for the Enterprise. The notion is that emergent social networking and computing is changing the face of work itself. I think that’s an overstatement, but you don’t have to subscribe to transformative theories to still recognize the value of social software.
Various definitions of Enterprise 2.0 also take into account newer alternatives to traditional approaches in the software marketplace, including:
- rich Internet applications in general, and AJAX in particular, as a user interface alternative to clunky browser screens and disconnected desktop applications;
- software-as-a-service (SaaS) business and delivery models, as an alternative to traditional, on-premise, "installed" software; and
- mashups, as a simpler way to integrate Web-based applications and data in lieu of more complicated and expensive lower-level development.
They are all welcome developments, but none of those approaches is intrinsically essential to social software success. Similarly, those new approaches will have a substantial impact in technology spaces well beyond social software. Nonetheless, you will see vendors frequently tout those dimensions of their offering to grant themselves Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 credentials. Tread warily there.
What is social software?
CMS Watch defines social software as: tools for collaboration and networking within and beyond the enterprise.
There is a tension between the notions of collaboration and networking, although both are critical to long-term success. Networking revolves more around individuals and conversations; collaboration tends to center on teams and tasks. Clearly, the boundaries are blurry, and most professionals, most of the time, would like to network and collaborate with colleagues in the same system at the same time. Yet most tools in the marketplace don’t work that way.
Many observers label collaboration as "old school," while networking is considered newer, cooler and more "fun." There’s some truth to that: Networking on Facebook is more fun than sharing documents in SharePoint.
It turns out, however, that most professionals want to do more than network with peers. To varying degrees, they want to contribute and consume information collaboratively as well. Oftentimes a discussion will ripen into a project, which may require a different set of supporting technologies. But that in turn doesn’t mean that project participants suddenly want to stop discussing and brainstorming. In other words, networking begets collaboration, and vice versa.
As a practical matter, social software tools range across a panoply of different technology families, including portals and collaboration suites, pure-play blog/wiki/forum products, hosted community solutions and revamped Web 2.0 modules from major software vendors.
Functionally, social computing can span a variety of practical business services. Some products, like standalone blog and wiki tools, may emphasize one or two business services, while other "suites" may–-for better or worse—incorporate numerous business services in a single environment. Typical business services include: blog, wiki, social ranking, project tracking and participation, multimedia, information filtering, file sharing, discussion, presence/instant messaging, people finding and Web conferencing.
Those business services overlap somewhat, abut still fulfill different purposes. Note the difference among:
- sharing a file with departmental colleagues,
- editing an entry in the company’s product support wiki, and
- discussing a new idea with co-workers around the world in an online forum.
It seems increasingly clear that participants would rather not have to learn different tools to accomplish those various tasks. But it is equally clear that no single vendor in the marketplace excels at all or even most of those services. In fact, many successful social software case studies revolve around the dedicated application of a standalone tool.