Is Business Social?


How will Social be implemented in the enterprise? Research Findings from ChainLink Research.


The last two years have seen enterprise and supply chain developers embedding social within their applications. From the market’s perspective it seems like one of the hot topics — it will change the world!

In addition, enterprise users have begun using enterprise social networking or social supply chain for real business process work.1 In our last issue we talked about the evolution of these functions, so I won’t dwell on it this time. However, if you look at the results from our Business Priorities Research, an interesting element emerges.

Source: Business Priorities 2014 – ChainLink Research

Respondents appear to be embracing social for customer dialogue. One would surely expect that with the B2C because they deal directly with consumer markets. 39% said that is what they are/will do with customers. Interestingly, the B2B community was also more focused on using social for dialogue with customers (also 39%), and less so with suppliers.

However, out of the base of companies we surveyed, although social is a growing sector, it did not climb to the very top of objectives. But based on historical mapping of technology adoption, this will change. Social is becoming more embedded in business applications and, therefore, it will be just one touch away from these new capabilities. Social will creep into the workflow as companies address some of the challenges to implementation (discussed later in this article).

Source: ChainLink Research

Our research respondents often stated things like “we know we want to collaborate more, but we are not sure of the best ways to do that,” or “social networking is in our future, but we just are not set up for managing these new communications,” or importantly, “we are unsure of how our employees will communicate over this medium. Until compliance sorts that out — no social.” Most frequently, as you would suspect, we heard, “IT has other priorities.” In that regard, help is here from all your friendly solution providers.

Social’s Partnerships

Social is most powerful, though, when combined with other business applications such as supply chain. The most powerful examples we have seen to date are when social is used as the overall business platform, rather than as an afterthought or tack-on.

One example is Ming.le, from Infor. Infor says Ming.le is a platform for “social collaboration, business process improvement, and contextual analytics.” We wrote about Ming.le and one of the Infor customers in our last issue. But Infor provided us with a list of examples in which social is driving the remaking of the enterprise — or driving the enterprise itself. Surely any company with a very large number of customers needs a platform that brings the customers closer to them. Everybody wants dialogue and seamless information and workflow between themselves and their customers.

Infor recently took an unusual step of drafting a team from the ad world. (Read Why I Left Advertising To Become A Software Designer in Fast Company.) When we met with Marc Scibelli, he told us he was applying the concept of the ad agency world whose goal is “engaging people who don’t want to be engaged” to the software industry. Think about it. You’re that company with many customers. You want to keep them. With so much competition — in markets as diverse as pastel eye shadow to pistons — finding ways to engage and stay engaged is the imperative of the moment.

Epicor has taken an all-in approach to social — Epicor Social Enterprise — which is in the core of their overall ERP architecture. Epicor is developing a unique element for social in addition to the typical approaches such as customer engagement, employee knowledge management, team work, and supplier collaboration.

Linking social and the Internet of Things (IoT). If you look at Figure 3, you can see how this might be implemented (my rendition based on discussions with Epicor execs and developers). Whether they are remote or connected, things (equipment, vehicles, people, and devices) have sensors that yield metrics that can be interpreted by systems such as quality, manufacturing execution, equipment monitoring, etc. Messages can then be sent to a user based on user-defined rules. Via social collaboration methods, various stakeholders can see/monitor what is occurring live and dialogue and collaborate on solutions.

Source: ChainLink Research

Epicor’s E10 (Epicor ERP v 10), just released, has built on the innovations of their search-based architecture to create much more direct ways for users and stakeholders to access and utilize information. (More on Epicor in this issue.) This approach allows for various approaches to accessing information. Rather than relying on archaic menu structures, search can be leveraged to go directly to the elements, data, content, and/or people to collect the information relevant to the solution to a problem.

Search and social take the heavy training requirements out of the picture. As a result, stakeholders who might not be regular users (managers, partners) are able to more fully understand an issue and participate in the dialogue and collaboration.

Another recent launch was the Descartes Community. Members can use the community platform as their main log-in screen (or single sign-on) and organize their desktop from there. They can include their business applications, news feeds, and so on. However, rather than using the term “social,” Descartes’ approach to the community is to facilitate work and enrich their members’ expertise. So the community is not only a learning forum, but a supplier information management system with which to find partners.

Another social platform with business intent is FreightFriend from MercuryGate. In the transportation broker world, carriers and brokers are always looking for each other to transact business. However, the information management process to actually transact business is burdensome. FreightFriend short circuits the arduous process by allowing brokers to access their “favorite” carriers first — those who have been vetted and have most of their necessary data already in the system.

Social Can Be Lonely

Enterprises still face challenges when implementing social networking. For IT, this includes data management, infrastructure, archiving data, and security. Other corporate issues involve the legal department and reputation management. IT needs to think about governance. Legal, compliance, and purchasing need to consider who has a right and responsibility to speak on behalf of the company. These are not trivial issues.

So let’s look at the governance element first.

IT is loath to have ad hoc efforts going on in the company. Hence, your ERP or supply chain solution provider may be an option, with already-embedded social features. Employees can turn to the “approved” provider who generally follows the path of certification and care in software development and user security. Note that if you don’t provide a solution for your employees, they will find one themselves. People find ways to get things done. And the web has all sorts of social tools that have been adopted. In last year’s research results many of the social adopters said they would try freeware as a pilot before purchasing a system.

Remember that once users are online, they basically can invite anyone to join their groups. So it is critical to have some guidelines in place and have employees agree to these terms of usage. You probably won’t be able to effectively monitor all their streams and dialogues, but if they understand the rules of the road you are likely to gain support and compliance.

Enterprise social networking is an enterprise issue. So it is critical to begin a dialogue within the enterprise now. This is a cross-functional issue that will require the participation of key stakeholders from IT, Legal, HR, Risk Management, Supply Chain, Procurement and others (depending on the process). Some functions, by nature, are not collaborative, and this points to the huge challenge facing all enterprises. For example, compliance and legal are rule generators and experts at restricting outside communications. (We will come back to this issue of who gets to speak outside the company and how they do that, later.) However, the consequences of not including the legal/compliance perspective could be catastrophic. As we said, this won’t be easy.

Some practical guidelines as you go forward:

  • Create guidelines for your enterprise social network
  • Assign an accountable person to manage groups that touch customers
  • Valid users only — social networking software requires invites to be accepted, so the invites should be reviewed before new members get into the group. The rules should be posted so new users (especially external members) understand your restrictions. This is the key element of how your enterprise social gets set up. Are these validated users already in the system as a supplier, customer, or employee? How are people removed? Also important, since if they leave the company, for example, will HR know to tell the group moderator to remove them from the systems?
  • Educating employees about legal and security issues is critical to ensure compliance with the legal agreements between partners about sharing IP (NDA, non-competes) and to ensure that proper marking on IP copyrighting and privacy policies is in place.
  • Confidential documents and content probably should NOT be shared through the social network, where it is easy to get out of hand. Companies should instead use a secure MFT solution for that, since they manage and monitor traffic, catalogue documents on file, and maintain vigilant security on the disks and servers.
  • Buy more storage! IT needs to accommodate the vast storage requirement for the reams of content, e.g., large non-optimized files like PowerPoint, graphics, and media files, that may move from office desktops into the corporate locker.
  • Network/Telco performance may take a hit if these channels become popular.

Who Speaks for the Enterprise — the Team?

Miss Manners for social networking? Yes, but it goes beyond that. Does social chatter represent real business transactions? What restrictions should be placed on customers or trading partners who participate in discussions, share information, etc.? Does the term “sounds interesting” represent intent to buy? Does a negative comment about a third-party product represent an intention to cancel a contract with a supplier? Does dialogue about a deal get on the public airways, ruining the bid?

The point of social is to break down barriers, so if each statement an employee makes has to be cleansed and approved, then social is not the channel for you. However within a secure, select group, this technology can be successfully deployed to support a host of secure business processes.

Social in Use

Below, we have described some of the use cases that can be considered restricted to the small number of relevant participants. These are not consumer applications.


Interestingly, the research showed that this was a less important category for now but still growing. So ERP providers take note. There needs to be methods of user registration that allow access to the social network, but secure enterprise content.

Use cases:

Expertise and Skills Management — looking for the expert on a product that you need. Large companies, especially in the service industry, already have searchable profile pages on all their employees. These are a typical enterprise social network. As employees go mobile, chat features, web, and conference meetings get integrated into these environments. Moxie is such an example.

Sales Force Automation — the most recent internal use is the mobile-based enterprise social network for the sales force. A small group involved with account development networks and shares documents, commentary, chats, etc. NetSuite is an example here.

Social Supply Chain

Social is beginning to be adopted in several process areas. In supply chain, the tool sets are often fused and melded with other collaboration tools and suites already in high use today. Initially, the thinking was social would fuse with collaboration suites. But the real powerhouse has come from fusing social with supply chain processes (where the real content is). Collaboration suites2 are still disconnected from the business (though we have advocated for years for the tech world to find a way to fuse those in a bit better), so teleconferencing may not be embedded, but social, which is more about relationship architecture, seems to be a natural fit.3 Use cases:

Procurementon the open network, these platforms provide a forum for peer-to-peer insights about products. They include functions such as product demonstration and product or supplier search. TAKE Supply Chain, for example, has things like embedded chat right in the reports, so you can see a problem and reach out and chat with someone about the issue.

Why not just use email? Social is an architecture that is about building and managing relationships. It is excellent at multi-party and complex relationship management and maintaining dialogues between members in the group, whereas “chat” is a one-to-one finite communication. Email is excellent for sending and receiving communications, but not for creating and maintaining multiple of threads of dialogue. In the P2P — Procure-to-Pay for Direct Materials research we just completed, procurement professionals stated that collaborating with suppliers was a top priority. In addition, automating these threads between buyer and supplier was a goal. So whatever solution is being used has to be part of, not an adjunct to, the process.

Product Design/Product Life Cycle — product developers often collaborate on product design, especially where components — various software or hardware modules — need to work together. PTC Community is a showcase for product designers who are seeking advice from one another.

Transportation Management, Visibility, and Collaboration — important SaaS vendors are building in the P2P network to go along with their end-to-end services. As mentioned earlier, Descartes, MercuryGate, and MACROLYNK are building networks where shippers, carriers, and customers can mingle. Multi-enterprise discussions about methods, orders, tracking, and problem resolution can now be added to track and trace, enriching knowledge about critical orders. An enterprise social network can also be used to resolve issues rapidly.

Customer Service — another channel for resolving problems. Peer-to-peer problem solving — end-user chat rooms — are already extremely popular in the technology community. “Who has seen/solved this problem?” End-users share their expertise as well as help set priorities with the solution provider. It reduces the need for costly travel to steering committees at big conferences. Plex ERP is one such example.

Risk Management — a truly promising area in which a network is used to provide community-wide alerts. Within the community, you may need to connect instantly. Here again, there is a component you don’t get with email. You can establish a presence, a peer-to-peer dialogue for problems and solutions. Twitter has become a huge vehicle for this. A business application example is Resilinc.


Even on the customer-facing side, security is important. Hackers can wreak havoc with reputation. And as the customer-facing applications get smarter and feed applications like demand planning, design, or customer service, the data needs to be reliable.

Customer Service — Self-service applications have become very popular. But customers now often turn to one another to seek help on not only evaluating products, but getting help in solving minor technology or usage problems. Some of this social can be blog oriented. But some firms have used this to integrate directly into logging a problem and launching a service call.


A lot of what goes on in the consumer side, ironically, is less social. The big money for retailers and product companies is more about search than social.

Promotion Management — In general, going digital, whether via website, mobile app, or social network drives business (and costs little relative to national TV or print advertising). It also has long-term potential in tracking customers and promotional effectiveness. Paper coupons or sales advertising, though still popular, have little to no tracking. Digital channels provide the ability to assess the value of the added channel. They also provide marketers with knowledge about their end-customer segments. Facebook ad revenue continues to rise, symbolic of this channel as a source for promotion management.

Customer engagement is high in the digital world. So product designers and planners can use this data for product design, seasonal selections, and demand planning. If the social buzz about a color (for example, yellow) or product is low, you might reconsider that order for more yellow sneakers. You see this choice rising not only in our survey data, but in the use of social in merchandising solutions such as First Insights and others.

Understanding Consumers — It’s not going away! More than ever, the consumer tracking phenomena or Amazon becoming gateways to other enterprises and products, Google or Facebook are no longer the sole keepers of this stash of data.

Firms like IRI (Symphony) or Nielsen can help sort through consumer-preference data. As well, individual companies use their own marketing automation tools.5 This is the domain of big data, and understanding it can be a huge issue. Here is where social can help. Social takes the mean data and puts a face on it. A real person. We can tell that from years of doing data analysis as researchers, the really interesting stuff comes when you actually talk to the people. And of note in all this, Facebook builds and maintains relationships, whereas many of these other models are really about search analytics and preference.

Reputation Monitoring — Keeping up with the chatter about your company is critical. Tools such as Technorati, Google, and Yahoo, for example, can do a web-wide search. Many users also subscribe to sites that have monitoring tools for their content such as EDGAR, Twitter, Facebook, etc.6


Further reading:

Social Networking:


New Era of Business Cooperation – Descartes Community


1 Read Social Supply Chain 2014.Return to article text above
2 From Cisco, Microsoft, etc. — Return to article text above
3 We recently presented a market landscape about this in the brief: Social Supply Chain 2014Return to article text above
4 Trackin is NOT social, but it pays for the maintenance of the social site. — Return to article text above
5 These are most popular as the primary vehicle, since they provide so much more linking to your own views of the universe, allowing you to target and launch campaigns based on people’s specific interests. — Return to article text above
6 Read an interesting article from Wharton — The Ignored Side of Social Media: Customer Service

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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