If I hear another breathless report about social media for the enterprise, I'm going to rip the limbs off my Sarah Palin action figure.
We’ve seen "FaceBook for the Enterprise," "Wikis for the Enterprise," "YouTube for the Enterprise," "Digg for the Enterprise," and so on. And now there's "Twitter for the Enterprise."
Enterprise Web 2.0 startup SocialText this week released version 3.0 of its software, which includes "a trio of enterprise social software applications built on a common platform," as CEO Eugene Lee terms it. The six-year-old company also announced a limited beta of SocialText Signals, which is a version of the Twitter
microblogging technology designed for businesses.
"In recent weeks, we’ve seen enterprise Twitter clones appearing from many companies both big and small," notes Steve Gillmor in a blog, citing a list that includes Socialcast, Present.ly, and
Twitter itself has made some moves that could make it more appealing to business users, including setting up a group for the 2008 presidential election. The establishment of groups around common interests and themes is an obvious first step for luring business users to Twitter, which now has between 1 million and 3 million users, according to common estimates.
Now, I'm not a Twitter user and I view it as a ridiculous time sink. Apart from my wife, I don't have any friends who are that interested in my moment-to-moment activities or flashes of insight, and even if I did I wouldn't take time to provide them. But I am willing to be persuaded on microblogging for the enterprise. There are very few businesses that would not benefit from more collaboration and more instantaneous communications among distant colleagues.
Much depends on how the microblogging is used. BusinessWeek recently ran a long feature on how companies are monitoring Twitter to keep up with comments on their brands and services -- but I think that's wrong-headed. Besides its creepy surveillance overtones, using scanning tools to overhear microblog discussions of your company's performance is ultimately less valuable than using microblogging to improve that performance in the first place.
Instead, companies can use microblogging services like Twitter (plus the usual social-media roundup of blogs, Wikis, video Weblogs, and so on) to foster quick communication, exchange ideas, and get feedback rapidly. Used thusly, microblogging can help a company become more nimble as an organization and respond to customer feedback in real-time rather than committee-time -- all of which improves performance, customer service, innovation, and, one ultimately hopes, the bottom line. Think of it as managing and collaborating by walking around, virtually.
Twitter itself has some notable limitations, the most obvious being security, but the spread of tools designed specifically for enterprise users -- like SocialText Signals -- could break through the natural resistance of enterprise IT directors to this technology.
What’s more, the implementation of groups gathered 'round specific topics, like the '08 election, is only a first step toward turning the popular service from a fad into an enterprise tool. (They could also do something about Twitter’s annoying '70s-ish Peter Max design, if you ask me.)
Another obstacle is cultural. Enterprises may be looking for business cases for using social media tools, remarks Stuart Henshall, founder of the Mosoci consultancy, but "they have to work (and experiment) at overcoming a lifetime of working in environments that divide and separate problems, responsibilities, and challenges into discrete and divided bundles of tasks that are supposed to fit together like an orderly paint-by-numbers-like template."
Microblogging is definitely painting without the numbers. That means it will take a few years before it's really integrated in unified platforms for business communication, collaboration, and innovation. Don't bet that it'll never happen, though.
— Richard Martin is a science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in InformationWeek, Wired, Time, The Atlantic, The Asian Wall Street Journal, and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among other publications