Do All Business Applications Need To Be Social?

Next week, vendors from across the social computing landscape will converge on Boston for TechWeb’s Enterprise 2.0, a business Web 2.0 conference and trade show. In advance of this event – which I will be attending – I thought I’d discuss a topic that has started to emerge in my research of social software: the proliferation of social components in business applications. More specifically, I want to address a question a client recently raised: is having a social layer going to be necessary for businesses to adopt business applications going forward?

Over the last few years, we have seen software vendors position social tools as part of software suites such as collaboration platforms (e.g. SharePoint 2010, Lotus Connections), project management packages (e.g. ThoughtWorks Mingle),  BPM tools (e.g. ARISalign) and CRM systems (e.g. Salesforce Chatter). This is the natural reaction to what seems to be heavy business interest in these technologies: 65% of firms deploy at least one Web 2.0 tool. However, the marketing and selling of these tools is predicated on two myths:

  • Myth #1: Information workers are clamoring for these social tools. I have sat in on many vendor briefings where a company representative tells me employees demand Facebook-like or Twitter-like tools to do their jobs. Not true. When we ask information workers about their use of social networks, wikis, discussion forums, blogs, and microblogs for work, only a small group actually uses them; social networking tools, the best-adopted technology, is used by only 12% of information workers. When we ask non-users their desire in using each of these tools, small portions express interest; the most sought-after technology, discussion forums, only piques the interest of 15% of information workers.
  • Myth #2: Gen Yers won’t work for businesses without these social tools. On those same vendor briefings, that same representative will also wax poetically about 20-somethings demanding to work in social businesses. And while we have learned in our research that Gen Yers want to work in collaborative environments, they certainly aren’t dragging these technologies into business. And when we asked Gen Yers who aren’t using social technologies at work about their desire to do so, fewer than a quarter expressed interest in each of the technologies we mentioned. That’s hardly the revolutionary stance vendors are positioning themselves to answer.

 

Though the premise of user demand is faulty, there is a reality we must face: business leaders’ continued belief that their workforces crave – and need – these technologies will perpetuate the business demand. Why? From what we have seen in our data and heard in our inquiries, business leaders see social software as a means of capturing knowledge, improving communications and fostering collaboration. None of this is possible, however, without information workers embracing these technologies. This means that social tools must be smartly integrated into applications; they must tie directly to a collaborative business process (e.g. sales, marketing, R&D) and be placed within applications that serve that process (e.g. CRM, PLM).

So, the answer to the initial question is no. Not all applications lie within collaborative business processes (e.g. accounts payable software), and some social technologies draw information workers outside of their ordinary workflow (e.g. standalone Web 2.0 tools). So, while adding a social layer to an existing application provides a great way to differentiate, product managers must be smart about how information workers using their software work and find ways to incorporate these tools in a way that makes leveraging them a no-brainer for the end user. And marketers must move away from the "end user demands social" story and concentrate on the actual business problem the technology solves. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for failure by leaning on the assumption that end users want these tools instead of explaining where they need them.