There is a whole market of social networking tools and budding Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) providers from Microsoft/Yammer to many ERP providers, supply chain companies, as well standalone ESN technology. Their technology is great and it appears their time has come. However, what will keep the myriad of ESN offerings from becoming just another wanna be — a bunch of MySpaces — unfulfilled expectations in enterprise applications?
I recently attended a session that Epicor hosted for their customers, during which they discussed ESE, Epicor Social Enterprise. I also have ongoing discussions with transportation management technology provider LCI’s MACROLYNK as well social providers like Yammer.1 Their work and use cases provided input for the discussion that follows.
Social, but Exclusive
ESN is a different animal than social networking for consumers. ESNs such as Yammer are private cloud-based and are used by the business community within a select group. There will be no ‘learn the secrets of quick weight loss’ or ‘find your high school friends’ ads on these networks,2 or speculative brand advertisers paying for a chance to get at your data. The business community is paying for the ESN through the license or service fees they are already paying the enterprise software provider.
With whom do you want to socialize and why?
How is this approach different or better than all the other conduits for communication?
Most importantly, how does a social or collaborative mindset change the way we think and work, in essence, from Silos to Streams?
Within the Enterprise
During the first decades, systems were solely focused on automating transaction-based work. And now that transactions have become more external to enterprises, i.e., B2B, the work continues. However, what makes a company is its intellectual property — be it product creation or process management. Thus, knowledge management is a core element. Knowledge management and dialogue within the enterprise using ESN seem like a natural fit.3
Collaboration is a chat-like — highly interactive and iterative — format. Social networking does not necessarily mean that the full suite of collaboration capabilities is present, but it certainly supports both ad hoc and more formal dialogue within a group.
That is the generic foundational capability. Firms like Salesforce have empowered that concept and wrapped other salesperson-specific processes and features along with Chatter, for example, to create a harmonious approach to joint activities among the sales team. In other words, they have a viable use case! Creating groups and receiving and sending messages and content certainly are important — but not enough for a full collaboration suite.
Question: Will social networking replace email?
For some in the consumer society, it already has. Though social is best at supporting one-to-many or many-to-many dialogues, one can have one-to-one communication as well. However, its strength over email is the ability to monitor streams of dialogue within the group, as well as keep visible the unfolding — and evolution — of ongoing dialogue, which can be very powerful.
Another challenge here, and with ESN on the ERP platform in general, is what to do with people outside the enterprise. With an ERP, this presents a formidable problem: ERPs are not fond of allowing access to people from the outside.
Another problem is inviting others to join your network — how many enterprise networks can people join? If I am a service provider or supplier, I have a vested interest in joining your network. But customers and others want to belong to the ‘UN of social networks’ rather than dozens of individual networks. This means we need a network of networks, or pain-free/low-barrier integration between ESNs.
As a recipient of a lot of content, I don’t mind being a subscriber at a low level. But in how many networks do I have to register, creating a full user profile each time? So integration is critical: we who use LinkedIn can also leverage Twitter in the same post. So, for example, Epicor’s ESE was designed to be open and today is integrated to Twitter. Based on user feedback, they will integrate to more social networks over time.
The key question is: Will I stay with the network or will it be a passing thing?
How many networks can I really be a contributing member to? Sustainably, not many, it turns out. Users are gaining a lot of experience with LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and other networks, and find that they are not keeping up with those particularly well.4 But ESN may be different and more sticky.
I may be a member of a network for the duration of a specific project or problem set that is front and center to my priorities. But will I continue to use the network over time? If its use is tied to ongoing work activities, I will probably remain an active network member. But the likelihood of remaining an active member of that network diminishes if the project or incident is finite. So use cases with daily interactions are key.
Around the Enterprise
Customer engagement seems to be a well-established use case today for ESN. In a B2B context, Plex Systems has a strong use case (a paradigm setter) when it comes to customer engagement. (See PowerPlex 2013 article in this issue.) This is the community with a strong social and powerful customer community site.
Yammer has a lot going on, creating a company-specific site for team and customer engagement. The future will show us how well Microsoft’s division uses this (well, I expect).5 It was a brilliant move by Microsoft to acquire Yammer, since, as we stated above, these types of technologies often do replace email.
Consumers, of course, have many options for lodging complaints on the public social networks. Many companies do have their social sites set up for inbound customer service issues and complaints. And these tend to be taken seriously and are fairly well managed by many companies. But in terms of actual collaboration with customers, the ideas are there, but the installation of true working situations is limited (although you will find many ‘thought leadership’ articles on how cool this will be). Mostly, outbound use of social networks for new product announcements and promotions seems to be the norm. Outbound, campaign management and marketing are surely important. However, the real value will be achieved once the social sentiment analytics are really working and can be leveraged for demand management and product management.6
Epicor ESE users use social networking to deal with customer service issues such as credit issues and order status problems. It is very pragmatic and gives customers another channel for dealing with the company. And it allows the company to involve more employees in the dialogue with customers, if need be, to resolve issues.
Ultimately, a more powerful, but still early stage, opportunity is on the supply chain side. In this situation, ESN can blend more closely with specific business activities and user processes such as sourcing, design, transportation and logistics planning, and monitoring complex multi-stage and multi-party activities.
One company, LCI, a logistics and global trade technology company, has established an excellent track record with its customers, providing a collaborative solution for supply chain managers by linking customers with supply chain partners over a secure network. To accomplish this, they integrate data from the ERP systems and manage supply chain process with the LCI applications. The system watches the flow of information and is intelligent enough to recognize an exception and automatically notify the people involved, thus potentially kicking off a social thread — from the transaction to social. Very powerful!
Because of this obvious linkage, LCI got the idea that logistics was the perfect environment in which to take that next step and make it social. So they created the MACROLYNK, which can be used along with other LCI applications or as a supply chain application.
It’s still early days for them in the market, yet already they have a few major manufacturing and distribution companies in North America who have been using MACROLYNK to create a dialogue and support problem solving among their trading partners. A good example7 is the MAHLE Group, one of the world’s largest engineering and manufacturers of automotive system components.
Gustavo Davila, Director of Supply Chain Operations, MAHLE Mexico, who has been piloting this new ESN, told us, “MAHLE Group Mexico has been using LCI’s collaborative supply chain management platform for the last four years and it has made a huge difference in our operations. Since 2010, we have been involved in the development of a new LCI product called MACROLYNK and are looking forward to implementing this new social networking product this summer. Our plan is to use MACROLYNK across our entire supply chain. MACROLYNK will drive operations at six factory locations, including collaborations with vendors, carriers, customs brokers, and customers.”
This is a great story, since the customer is committed up front and understands the use case and the potential of the technology. We suggest that end-user firms get involved with their supply chain or enterprise providers so that their needs and concerns are addressed as these ESN solutions are planned and developed.8
MAHLE is the example, as they have taken the technology beyond the speculative stage and are making it part of the day-to-day business process. In essence, it is becoming part of the operation — not just a curiosity. For them, ESN won’t be a ‘wanna be,’ but an integral part of the business.
It’s the Use Case — and the Network
Other use cases could be working on short-term but critical processes that involve direct participants plus outreach to experts working on resolving design and engineering problems or service and repair issues. The challenge and opportunity is that the use cases are endless. And if we think about the fact that we are in a ‘consumerization’ of IT, these use cases and the creation of groups and content to support them will ultimately be in the hands of the user — not the tech provider.
Tech masters have put a lot of thought and money — LCI, Epicor, now Microsoft (in the billions of dollars) and for that matter, Salesforce (tens of millions) — into making ESN a reality for their customers. But what will keep these technologies in use? Use cases, content relevancy, and integration.
At the end of the day, the role for the tech company may be designing an open architecture, providing integration and security between groups, and creating tools to facilitate the use cases. The rest will be up to us.
2. It is interesting to note that Facebook has not entered the B2B market with branded and private ESNs, considering they have learned all the lessons about scale; the revenue model is different. In a twist of fate of the internet, the actual users don’t pay. But in the B2B world, they do. And of course it is a smaller market, as you can see by comparing LinkedIn’s revenue with Facebook’s. And ESN is just budding, with scant forecasts on the market size. — Return to article text above
4. What to say of managing the ‘inbox’ and the drop and store sites with ever-accumulating content. — Return to article text above
5. You can read a good article about Yammer results at PC World: Microsoft says Yammer Sales are Booming and Redmond Magazine: Microsoft Outlines Yammer Integration Plans. — Return to article text above
7. One who would go “on the record.” — Return to article text above
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