Social as a Service, Rather Than an Application

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The daily work of people across most of human history has been a social activity. However, information technology in the workplace has not reflected this. The typical enterprise resource planning package, for example, assumes employees are robotic data processors, as opposed to individuals who negotiate, share, adapt and learn with others as part of their daily work.

Seen in that light, the rise of Enterprise 2.0 is not some newfangled revolution, but a kind of return to our roots in the digital age. The mechanism for this is social computing. But what we're really talking about is human computing.

It takes more than software to humanize the modern digital workplace. Enterprises need to cultivate a culture of participation, and that's no simple task. You can turn to myriad consultancies and other sources of advice to help you here.

What can get lost in this effort is developing an architecture of participation. Most vendors offer social computing as discrete applications or proprietary add-ons to existing enterprise applications. Some of these tools are quite good but work only as freestanding or one-off systems, requiring employees to leave their existing flow of work to access them. A more durable enterprise architecture looks at social computing as a set of services rather than a set of applications.

Social Computing Behind the Firewall

To date, most social computing behind the firewall has mimicked social computing beyond the firewall. That is, companies have tended to set up internal digital communities where people can let their hair down or otherwise interact informally.

These communities generally focus on social networking and/or collaboration. Social networking applications include virtual water coolers, idea sourcing forums and even employee social clubs. Meanwhile, the toolsets of blogs, wikis and micro-blogging (think Twitter) enable employees to share and collaborate in new ways outside the strictures of formal enterprise applications.

Problem of Social Silos

For many customers, initial success with community and collaboration solutions has inevitably led to the old problem of multiple silos of information, services and user experiences. First, the quality of search applications erodes quickly. Then employees start to get confused by isolated and disconnected application services, such as profiles, activity streams, tag sets, discussion forums and so forth.

In most cases, enterprise managers implement point solutions for social computing because they have no choice. Perhaps they or their employer only want to support this sort of interaction in separate, prescribed communities. It's also likely that their incumbent portal technology simply doesn't accommodate social computing effectively. SharePoint 2007, for example, does a poor job of rendering blogs, wikis and tagging.

At a time when even enterprise software vendors like SAP are slowly moving to socialize their existing applications, most vendors still tend to treat customers like greenfield environments for social computing. This is not realistic in the modern enterprise, where knowledge workers employ numerous different applications throughout the work day.

The advent of social silos is all the more frustrating because, as these applications serve many different business purposes, they typically share many functional services in common. Commenting, tagging, individual profiles, activity streams, content ranking and rating facilities, and various other services are ubiquitous across these tools. But in almost every case, competing tools don't talk to each other.

Services-Oriented Social

My advice? Push back and press suppliers for a more services-oriented approach. Instead of multiple, proliferating profiles for one employee, ask any new vendors to leverage the employee profiles you already have. Instead of multiple tag clouds, ask for a common tagspace. Instead of deploying the vendor's own discussion forums and commenting services, ask suppliers to support you in plugging in the discussion services you already support.

The forthcoming SharePoint 2010 anticipates this architecture to some extent inasmuch as it allows you to arbitrarily apply social services (like commenting) to any SharePoint teamspace or content type. Characteristically, though, these services work only inside SharePoint, at a time when even the most Microsoft-committed organization must support a more heterogeneous environment. Cisco and Salesforce are proposing social toolsets that also reside as a discrete layer, though both offerings remain in their infancy.


If you've gotten this far you're probably asking, "But what about identity management, entitlements, security, privacy and all the other SOA challenges?" There are no simple solutions here, but some standards are emerging that could help. OpenSocial, a standard for sharing data on the public Web, is now seeing some traction among enterprise vendors and customers. Standardized widgets hold promise for lightweight integration. Both standards remain undertested, but both are maturing quickly.

The key here is to rely less on the social tooling that comes with any individual package and more on providing a consistent social experience across applications. Don't rely on vendors to socialize their existing applications and repositories as if they were the center of your collaborative universe. Work toward an architecture of participation that allows you to add common social services to humanize existing business processes, regardless of application.

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