Advocates of enterprise social - or enterprise 2.0 – claim it is a way of working that can improve employee productivity and customer relationships using social software.

Internally, it enables employees to collaborate on documents without the need for email. At the same time, targeted use of social networks keeps customers close and new clients interested.

Software giants Microsoft and IBM are already immersed in the space, alongside smaller players including Jive Software and Yammer (now owned by Microsoft). Analyst firm Ovum estimates the current value of the enterprise social networking market to be in excess of $500 million, with around 10% of organisations in established IT markets deploying solutions or subscribing to services.

"Enterprise social software allows SMBs to go about business in a more agile way," says Richard Edwards,Principal Analyst at Ovum.

"It is a continuation of some of those consumeristic approaches to enterprise communication and collaboration," he adds. "In our consumer lives we use Twitter and Dropbox to share ideas, so why don't enterprises have the opportunity to use these ideas?"

"Social business is about organisations that really try and leverage relationships," says Stuart McRae, Executive Collaboration and Social Business Evangelist at IBM. "It's about empowering employees to do their jobs and to maintain relationships with customers - and the two go hand in hand."

Replacing email

Ovum believes that enterprise social's potential is at least equal to that of the corporate email market, in which Exchange Server is a multi-billion dollar product for Microsoft. If momentum continues, experts say it's possible that such an approach could replace email in some businesses.

"The nature of this software means it could be ubiquitous by the mid point of this decade," Edwards says.

"Enterprise social will be what enterprise email is today. But whereas email is limited, enterprise social allows everyone to read questions and respond. Enterprise social networks are about being out in the open."

In an evolving IT world, this new approach can keep employees engaged in something with which they identify.

Instant sharing

Chris Patton, Commercial Director of CDG UK, says: "There is a new generation of information workers with different expectations of technology and how they can interface with it. For them, sharing dialogue, documents and communications instantly without functionally poor technology getting in the way is viewed as essential."

"Social software allows business leaders to articulate what the company is trying to do in terms of ongoing and continuous discussions," adds Edwards. "Enterprise social networks can also be used to do work and upload documents onto a shared workspace and work on them collaboratively.

"You wouldn't necessarily prohibit others in the business from seeing the document as they could help contribute to it. You can't do this with email."

McRae agrees: "So instead of emailing content you can share with everyone. That revolutionises things internally so you can share information."

Edwards adds: "We are seeing displacement from email into enterprise social networks. These business models allow them to have the advantage of the tools without having to pay for the servers. You will find business managers self-selecting the systems to collaborate on."

With vendors including IBM, Microsoft, VMWare, Salesforce and Citrix offering the software, the market is growing quickly. "Because there are so many vendors the market will mature rapidly," says Edwards.

Cloud first

Edwards suggests SMBs look at cloud before moving to enterprise social. "I suggest SMBs looking at this to consider cloud first," he says. "Some of the software runs on the cloud and the software is always being updated."

Edwards adds: "You can add capabilities on a six month basis. At the moment if you're an iPhone user, or Android, you get bug fixes. By adopting cloud based enterprise social you get that same experience."

McRae agrees, adding: "SMBs should look at cloud first. There are still a lot of conversations in SMBs; cloud can work better in that sort of world."

Putting in software capabilities allows firms to grow and manage the network, says McRae. "It gives you the opportunity to manage relationships better. You can manage relationships with prospective clients and suppliers."

Enterprise social encourages businesses to make knowledge available to everyone, such as putting updated customer information on a shared area after going out in the field. Meanwhile, online photo collaboration makes it possible to share ideas ahead of time, leaving meetings for decision-making, so workers can be much more efficient, says McRae.

Used correctly, enterprise social can benefit SMBs specifically. McRae says: "A lot of SMBs are b2b, which means it is even more important that the sales rep builds a relationship with the customer.

"It allows prospects a close relationship. It's about looking at what's possible and looking at how this can help me."