Tools that support social business initiatives fit into several different  software categories / markets. Social business is a very broad term that includes all the enterprise social activities, internal and external. I find that often people understand a single perspective on social, often based on their role or personal experience with some of the tools. A customer support manager thinks of social in the context of customers while others might immediately think of collaboration or ideasourcing.

We published an IDC social taxonomy last year to try and capture all of the different social markets, mostly so we could count revenue (it is what we do after all), but also to try and make it easier to communicate about social in the enterprise. I was thinking about this taxonomy after having a particularly difficult time explaining social business to someone the other day. It's detailed and fairly complex, which is necessary, but it makes it hard sometimes to help people see the different opportunities in their own businesses. We also have published some specific business processes that can be "socialized", which seems to help make it clearer. I just recently finished a white paper for VMware (Socialcast) on enterprise social networks (ESN) that stimulated some thinking about social business and particularly around the tools that are emerging to support the collaborative enterprise. I'm starting to see some broader patterns that associate different social business processes into a few categories like ESN. For this post though, I think it might be useful to talk more about the idea of an ESN and how it can be used to support key business processes.

ESN's form the core of the enterprise social backbone and are essential for connecting the inside to the inside and the outside (employees to employees, partners, suppliers, and customers). What makes up an ESN and how is it used to support the collaborative enterprise? ESN's can include these features and applications:

  • Activity stream / microblog / unified UX for sharing and communication
  • Profile
  • Mobile across all major OS's
  • Blogs
  • Wiki's
  • File sharing
  • Intelligent information filtering
  • Task management / execution
  • Decision support (including socialytics)
  • Integration (both to the other components and to other enterprise systems)
  • Ability to embed in other enterprise applications

There is no need for all components to source from a single vendor, by the way, as long as the integration capabilities are present and components are built to open standards. In fact there's some argument that at least some companies are better served if key components are "best of breed" to meet a greater percentage of business requirements. This componentized approach is much more prevalent and IMO part of the way that the next generation of enterprise platforms come together. The core of the ESN though, forms a critical piece of the enterprise system of relationship and would often include the new communication tools like activity streams / microblogs and profile. It's also likely that businesses will want this part of the system integrated to other enterprise communication assets like email, IM, video conferencing and voice to provide a better user experience. It's also essential that the core ESN support ad hoc work by bringing together people, data, content and supporting systems in real time and in a work context.

From the task execution perspective some of the core ESN systems provide basic task management, which could be sufficient for some businesses. Most businesses though, will recognize that projects are really the core of their operations and will need more feature rich task management and execution systems. Also likely that these capabilities are or could be part of a enterprise project management system. I like to use the phrase task execution though, to separate the new social project execution functions from traditional project management tools which most often did a great job of tracking projects but did little to enable work to actually get done. Tying the core ESN to the task execution system is business critical as more companies realize that these tools can greatly improve project success and form an important part of supporting ad hoc work.

I also think it very important for companies to connect the ESN to other social systems like social support (part of the Customer Experience Management / SCRM applications), customer communities, innovation management, supplier networks, partner networks or in other words, connected to all systems of relationship across the enterprise. Analytics in the form of embedded systems of decision and including socialytics, should also be an essential part of the ESN. Overall the ESN should bridge systems of relationships to systems of decision. A lot of the benefits that social systems bring beyond connectivity are tied to bringing the right assets together in a work context and in real time to deal with issues, problems and opportunities.

Lastly the ESN is the new age replacement for the outdated static (or nearly so anyway) Intranet. The ESN is dynamic, real time connectivity across the business to support knowledge sharing and filtering, critical business decisions and work execution. It's no surprise that companies in our bi-annual social business surveys are seeing strong increases (in the range of 11-30%) in productivity associated with social software solutions, and no surprise that the overall social software market grew almost 40% from 2010 to 2011.