In the wake of the Celtics' fourth-quarter collapse that gave Kobe Bryant his fifth ring, I am endeavoring to find positive things to focus on instead of post-game analysis, which brings me to the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. This was my second year attending the event (which is conveniently located 10 minutes from my house), and I must say that my takeaway this year is more positive than my impressions after last year's show. I appreciated the optimism exhibitors and attendees have about the market and the passion they show for the topic – which led to some lively debates. But during my three days at the event, the things that really caught my attention were:
- Vendors finally striving for real differentiation. One of my principle complaints from last year's show was that the vendors didn't seem to realize they were in a commodity market; every pitch I heard was based on feature sets that all the vendors shared. While there was still a bit of this going on, what stood out was that there were a number of different angles being pitched: Saba and SuccessFactors approaching the market from their footholds in training and human capital management; Jive Software and Ektron talking about applications and widgets that ride on their platforms (more on that in a moment); Cisco talking about integrated presence and IM, as well as social video experiences; and Microsoft and Huddle talking about intercompany collaboration (again, more in a moment) were but a few examples. I think this is the sign of market maturity that many observers have been waiting to see. What's driving this? I think that for the social software specialists, there's been a revelation: Microsoft and IBM have introduced horizontal social offerings that have garnered positive reviews, while a range of business application vendors are providing social components to their tools, making it essential for the social software specialists to tell a better story than, "our features are better than Microsoft's."
- Application stores and development tools for social platforms are gaining momentum. During the event, I had conversations with three vendors – Jive Software, Ektron, and one other who will make an announcement shortly – that are rolling out widget interfaces to allow for data from other business applications to flow into their environments. For those of us who have complained about collaboration tools in general living outside of established workflows (it hinders adoption), this is a step in the right direction: These little applications or widgets can provide contextual information to these people-centric interfaces, providing the "thing" around which people collaborate. However, I think this isn't where things need to end up: The unstructured work of information workers isn't always solveable within the limited functionality of a widget; it can require the robust feature set of the business application feeding the widget. That said, I submit that the real winner in this space will be the vendor who provides the mechanism to effectively make that underlying business application "social."
- Professional services are starting to become a bigger part of the conversation. Another complaint I had about last year's event was a lack of discussion on end user adoption. I have argued that social software vendors need robust consultative services to ensure successful deployments (boosting the chance of the license renewal), and the conversations I had during the conference point to broad vendor agreement. The vendors I spoke with discussed their services arm and what they were doing for customers, which was good, and when pressed on the size of this group in relation to their customer base, they revealed that their services group was small, which isn't so good. The enlistment of management consultancies and IT services providers as augmentations for vendor professional services was often put forward, but with many social software companies jockeying for attention from these prospective partners, I fear that some will be lost in the shuffle.
- Microsoft begins talking about intercompany collaboration. Lost in the stream of announcements coming from Cisco, Jive Software, Socialtext, and more was Internet-based team workspace provider Huddle presenting with Microsoft. In February, Huddle took the top prize in Microsoft's SharePoint 2010 SocialFest, a contest to integrate applications with SharePoint. Huddle's entry tied together SharePoint instances in different companies allowing for communication and collaboration outside the firewall. With its closest competitors, Cisco and IBM, going to market with an intercompany collaboration story, this bridging begins to let Microsoft have a voice in the game. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how they develop their spin on this as businesses put a greater emphasis on being able to work with partners and suppliers more efficiently and easily.
These observations alone made my three days at the event worthwhile. As was often brought up by vendors and conference attendees, we're still in the early days of the social software market, but I think we're starting to see maturity. The one area that I still need to see discussed and addressed more directly is end user adoption: telling me about the number of employees a tool is deployed to or pointing to a few customers who report "success" doesn't tell me if people consistently use the tool (and what consistency looks like in the social realm) and it doesn't get me to value different roles in the organization receive (and this is beyond management telling me they think it's great).