Enterprise social collaboration platforms offer many features that add value to working together, compared with the traditional exchange of emails. These include activity streams, user profiles, blogs, apps, wikis, and shared workspaces.
In a fast evolving market, working out which features are nice to have and which are must-have in an enterprise social collaboration solution is key. Which features are really game changers in terms of helping your business use social collaboration for the benefit of the business?
"Where platforms start to differentiate themselves is in areas like social task management, unified communication – presence, chat, web conferencing, hangouts, screensharing, etc – real time co-authoring, analytics and integration with enterprise systems such as CRM, ERP, HR, etc," says Alan Lepofsky, VP and Principal Analyst, Constellation Research.
Features such as social analytics and activity streams that simply did not exist in the email world can be key to the added value of enterprise social collaboration, but only if the data is manageable and informs decision making.
"Enterprise activity streams provide the opportunity for people to discover the content, colleagues and communities that can help them get their jobs done," says Lepofsky. "However, the opportunity for information overload is far greater with social software than it ever was with email.
"Information shared in streams needs to be organised in ways that enable people to focus on the right information at the right time. In other words, the ability to provide context is one of the most important things to look for in a collaboration platform."
He adds: "Social analytics can help people measure the interactions between people and data. However, having a great deal of information does not mean you can instantly make more informed decisions.
"People need to know how to process the information being presented, have the experience to determine what the stats are showing them and have the knowledge to decide what the course of action should be."
Another key feature is mobile access. How good are the interfaces and usability for mobile access? Richard Edwards, Principal Analyst at Ovum, believes vendors are treading water with mobile apps while they develop as much as they can on the desktop.
He cautions: "There is close scrutiny required of vendor support for mobile devices. It is one thing to say we support iOS, Android, maybe Windows Phone or BlackBerry. But when you look at the next level, which features do they actually support and are all devices treated equally in terms of the features offered?
"Are the same level of features available on the Apple and Android tablets? Those two platforms are relatively well supported and it is easy to update them via the Apps Store and Google Play. But we are not seeing wonderful support for Windows RT, which might be important."
First Mile provides recycling services businesses in city centres. It has over 10,000 customers some of whom have several recycling collections per day, so the business is characterised by its mobile operations, high transaction volume and with seven or eight new sales a day, a high rate of new customer acquisitions.
The nine-year-old company has been using Salesforce.com for five years and recently rolled out Chatter to ensure the sales team can collaborate through their mobile phones. Six people in the office and another 10 in the field use it on their smartphones.
"We did fire a lot of emails around and the key thing for us is we take a lot of photographs, so it compounded the problem of collaboration," says Bruce Bratley, CEO of First Mile.
"We tried to put a notes box on Salesforce for people to collaborate through but it never quite worked. We have an office based team and a field team. The collaboration between those teams needs to be really strong and we were struggling to get a solution to that.
"As soon as Chatter came along and we started using it we adopted it within a few days as it was quite obvious how well it was going to work for us.
"We tend to use it with a photo attached initially. For example at a larger client the team will take pics of recycling bin and waste area so we can decide how best to service that customer and then we store it for future use."
Employees use a variety of mobile platforms including iOS, BlackBerrys and Android and have found Chatter works equally, in terms of depth of features and usability, across them all.
People put tags and notes by the photos and much of the information is stored by street location for access later on. After acquisition, customer details are transferred to the company's own system, Enqwix.
"The next big step for us is the integration of Salesforce, which is the front end of our customer journey, with Enqix," says Bratley.
Vendors are adding features and innovating continuously, enabling deeper integration with other applications all the time.
"In any decision to make an investment now, there are going to have to be trade-offs," says Nikos Dracos, analyst at Gartner.
"If you know you want to use it in a particular way because you have a business need to improve your employee engagement, for example, or to push through some big changes you are doing, push innovation and you have realised employees are already using Dropbox, for example, then choosing an application you can get good value from should be a priority.
"If you are ready now, go for it. If you are still testing and trying things then maybe you can wait for your preferred supplier to come up with (the features you would like)."
At the same time, for maximum flexibility, Ovum's Edwards advises organisations to plan their exit strategy before jumping in.
"Some organisations will have to be very mindful of what happens if you go into merger and acquisition activity or move to another platform. How easy is it to move data to another platform and is it indeed at all possible?
"I would encourage all those involved in the selection process to consider your exit strategy and do a dry run. It is an area that is underdeveloped."
You can also read about the options for running enterprise social through the cloud or in-house, and how to manage data and content in parts 1 and 2.