What does Salesforce Chatter tell us about social networks?

Earlier this month, at the CIO Perspectives event in San Francisco, I got an earful 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?

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Earlier this month, at the CIO Perspectives event in San Francisco, I got an earful 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?

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 emails 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 organisation 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.

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