Lots Of Talk About Chatter At Salesforce’s UK Customer Event

Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com, gave a typically energetic performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall yesterday, both in the main-stage keynote and the private lunch for press and analysts. In addition to some humorous digs at Oracle, SAP, and pretty much any company that wants to run its own data center, Benioff described his vision for enterprise applications in the world of social computing, which he calls Cloud 2. Key to this vision is salesforce.com’s own Chatter application, which is . . .  er, well actually it's not really clear what it is. Various spokespeople described it as an internal Facebook, a collaboration engine, Twitter but secure, but to me it still seems to be a user interface in search of an application.

The demonstration reminded me forcibly of the scene in Bruce Almighty in which Morgan Freeman lets Jim Carrey hear all the prayers being made at that instant by the citizens of Chicago. The user gets a stream of tweets, discussion threads, notifications, and alerts from feeder applications, messages from colleagues to each other, general questions, etc. My question, which no-one could answer adequately was “how is this different from email?” The features they cite — filtering, highlighting, threading, categorizing, etc. — are all in Outlook if you care to use them.

The main difference, apart from the fashionable user interface with the sender’s photo next to each message, is the switch from emailers deciding who they want to read their message, to readers deciding whose chats they want to see. Benioff’s description of his own Chatter feed puts him as the omniscient Bruce, watching every sales process, customer service problem resolution, product design collaboration, and invoice approval throughout his organization.

That sounds frightening, but it also creates new management information. I loved Benioff’s description of how monitoring the Chatter within salesforce.com enables him to identify his HEROes* – the people who solve problems, to whom everyone else goes for help. They’re not merely the most active chatters, but the ones who provide answers for their colleagues, contribute solutions rather than issues, and generally make things happen. What’s really great is that Benioff now uses Chatter-monitoring tools to identify his key contributors and formally rewards them for their hitherto unrecognized contribution. Of course, CEOs could learn the same information by monitoring everyone’s email, but email is somehow treated as private in a way that the new collaboration media are not.

A couple of early adopter customers added to the positioning confusion. One advocated just turning it on and letting people use it how they want — that might have worked in his 12-person company but is unlikely to extrapolate when you amp up the Chatter noise a hundred-fold. The other customer, from a slightly larger organization, advised us to implement it selectively for appropriately unstructured collaboration activities, while keeping more structured activities in their designed-for-purpose apps. That makes a lot more sense.

Social technologies like Chatter can create headaches for sourcing and vendor management professionals. The rush to leap on the Web 2.0 bandwagon could leave companies facing proliferating competing services, unchecked click-through contracts, and redundant licenses — for instance, Chatter isn’t always as free as Benioff claimed. But maybe the bigger danger is to lose credibility in your organization by appearing to be like King Knut, pushing back against the tide. The Facebook user interface is taking over, and we have to embrace the new world without letting anarchy reign. Even better, we can provide selection and deployment guidelines that could actually increase our profile. My colleague Chris Andrews and I will be running a workshop on "Sourcing Social Media Tools" at our SVM Forum, Forrester's Sourcing & Vendor Management Forum 2010, and we’d love to see you there, to hear your stories about best practices and pitfalls.

* HEROes are highly empowered and resourceful operatives, as described in Forrester’s book Empowered: Unleash your Employees, Energize your Customers, Transform your Business, Harvard Business Review Press, 2010 (http://www.forrester.com/empowered).