The cover story of this month's issue of Employee Benefit Adviser provides insight into how brokers can make innovative use of social software in their practices. Understanding the use of social software technology in the workplace is complicated because it is a broad and evolving category and the vendors competing in this space are coming from different perspectives and areas of expertise.

In keeping with this theme, in this month's column I'll provide an overview of this emerging market and the drivers pushing innovation. Next month, I'll follow up by addressing product features.

 

Innovative solutions

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has become the "face" of consumer-oriented social media outlets. Of course there are plenty of other outlets, from MySpace to Bebo, that are harnessing the power of social software as well.

But it is the business world that will experience the most change, and perhaps the biggest benefit, from the adaptation of social software technologies.

Ultimately, businesses will derive value from social software through improvements in operational efficiencies and effectiveness, leveraging the modern approach to interpersonal communication, and incorporating both internal and external social networks into business applications.

These innovative solutions are spurring a new approach to product and business development. They are turning the traditional top-down methods on their head by enabling bottom-up innovation with effects on performance and growth - and ultimately improving the bottom line. Additionally, the speed and real-time flexibility of these systems provide the nimbleness needed in today's business environment.

The business use of social software technology is evolving and garnering attention. In the last two years industry analyst and research firms have put more emphasis on social software in the workplace.

For example, International Data Corp. and the Gartner Group have focused on this as a specific product category. IDC forecasted what it calls the "online community software market" to grow to $1.6 billion by 2013. In December 2010, Gartner announced projections of $769.2 million in 2011 for "enterprise social software revenue."

There are hundreds of vendors that claim they offer some, if not all, of the capabilities businesses are looking for in social software technology. A majority of them provide cloud-based solutions and use a software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery model.

The SaaS delivery model is a key adoption criterion in this market space because it opens up access to small and midsize businesses that would not otherwise consider on-site (that is, inside the firewall) deployments.

Furthermore, most vendors are taking a suite-based approach to bundling their solutions. It is too soon to tell what the market standard for social business software suites will be, but the feature list to come next month will identify most of the key capabilities being offered.

Only a handful of vendors have achieved critical mass in terms of revenue and client base, but others are catching up. The players include well-known companies like IBM, Oracle, EMC, Open Text and Microsoft. Other companies are emerging, including Jive Software, Atlassian, Leverage Software, blueKiwi, Socialtext and Telligent.

In addition to the development of social business software suites, the emerging leaders have a clear focus and strategy to help businesses successfully deploy and manage social software solutions.

 

Planning and implementation

As with any successful project, planning and implementation are essential and are areas that social software vendors concentrate on. There are three common approaches to implementation: technology implementation, interpersonal communication and customer focus.

While there is indeed overlap in these approaches, successful deployments typically focus on one of them as the primary method.

Technology integration. Here the effort is centered on integrating social software with a client's existing applications and technology. Integrated solutions are oriented toward process improvements and workflow. This enables teams to more efficiently move projects through the organization. Improvements in intergroup communication and productivity are often realized as a result.

Interpersonal communication. This implementation approach leverages existing formal and informal employee networks by giving them social software tools. Focusing on the communication aspects of social software has the benefit of more easily disseminating all types of knowledge and builds bonds between disparate groups, breaking down the geographical and departmental barriers that often slow a business down.

Customers and partners. Customer focus is always a good thing and business partners can add value because they often share a common vision. Thus, an implementation that incorporates customers and business partners into the social network solution is an approach many vendors are taking.

Recent studies show that most innovative product ideas come from people - clients, partners and employees - not from marketing and product development management as one might expect. A social business community that extends outside the firewall brings the market closer to your organization and can lead to the rapid innovation needed in today's business environment.

Next month, I'll list the features that clients are looking for - a helpful tool to make you more conversant in social business software - and provide a matrix of the features in each vendor's product.

John Lamb is senior vice president and general manager, Benergy Interworks, at A.D.A.M. Inc., in Atlanta. Reach him at jlamb@adamcorp.com.

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