Adoption of business technology is often slower than expected. That's been the case for enterprise social networking, which vendors have been pushing for going on a decade now.
Despite interest in leveraging social technology to boost collaboration and productivity in the workplace, use of enterprise social networks lags behind the use of social networks such as Facebook, which earlier this year reported it had 1.28 billion active monthly users.
Still, enterprise social networks aren't going away. And some experts believe we may be approaching a "tipping point" during which adoption will pick up.
Enterprise Social Adoption by the Numbers
Frost and Sullivan, in its Analysis of the Global Enterprise Social Networking Market, found that the number of full-suite enterprise social networking subscribers reached 208 million last year, an increase of nearly 30 percent from 2012. The firm expects that number to hit 535 million by 2018, with most of the growth occurring in the next two years. Nearly 90 percent of users pay for subscriptions rather than using free versions of social software, according to the research.
Among the factors driving adoption, said Robert Arnold, a principal analyst and author of the research, are an influx of younger knowledge workers who are "more accepting of multi-channel communications" and growing expectations for pervasive access to information and resources.
"For certain kinds of virtual workers, there is a shift in what the work day looks like. It doesn't matter if they need to brainstorm at 3 a.m. or in the middle of workflow at 1 p.m.," he said.
Frost and Sullivan looked at about 20 enterprise social solutions that it feels are appropriate for broad horizontal deployments and not just smaller departmental deployments, said Arnold, noting that these solutions are "maturing rapidly in terms of breadth and depth of functionality."
Enterprise Social Improvements
Tom Petrocelli, research director, Enterprise Social, Mobile and Cloud Applications, for Neuralytix, agreed, noting that vendors are making key improvements to their enterprise social software, most notably focusing more on mobile features and adding workflow capabilities.
While mobility is becoming a "must-have" capability for many enterprise applications, it's especially important for social networking, Petrocelli said. "If the purpose of collaboration is to help people work better together, and you lock certain people out because they are on the road a lot, it defeats the purpose."
Enabling users to move from simply sharing and discussing information to acting on it by providing features such as task management, templates and rudimentary workflow differentiates enterprise social leaders from the rest of the pack, Petrocelli said. Without such features, knowledge workers tend to rely on more tried-and-true forms of collaboration such as email.
"The 'why' is still missing for most enterprise social software. People say, 'OK, I've shared this information. What do I do now?'," he said.
Enterprise-level integration is another key differentiator for social products, Petrocelli said. Noting that Neuralytix research found that just 12 to 15 percent of subscribers use cloud-based collaboration software on a daily basis, he said users do not want to leave their frequently-used applications simply to find information and collaborate with co-workers.
"Social needs to be part of a regular workflow and the applications that users spend time in," Arnold said. Collaboration within Microsoft SharePoint is effective, he pointed out, because users can access tools within the context of tasks they are already performing.
Integration and Big Four Vendors
This need for integration is especially important to IT organizations, Petrocelli said, and tends to favor incumbents like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce. He questions marketing collateral in which enterprise social software vendors refer to their products as platforms.
"I laugh at vendors that say 'we're not an application, we're a platform,'" he said. "IT doesn't need more platforms than they already have. They want something they can integrate into their existing stack. Jive has great integration, but the problem is they typically are not going to be the first choice for somebody who is an Oracle shop."
Frost and Sullivan's research showed that four vendors command a whopping 80 percent of the enterprise social networking market: IBM, Jive, Tibco and Microsoft (with both Yammer and SharePoint). The names of the leaders were not a surprise, Arnold said, though the concentration of market share was. Despite this, he said vendors like Oracle, SAP and Google could quickly gain significant market share by acquiring social solutions with capabilities complementary to their existing systems.
A significant number of deployments are departmental ones that expand into larger installations of enterprise social software, Arnold said. Departmental deployments often use free software. Frost and Sullivan found use of free enterprise social software grew 41 percent from 2012 to 2013, reaching 24 million unpaid subscribers. Some vendors report healthy conversion rates from free to paid accounts, Arnold said.
Arnold and Petrocelli both believe that departmental departments are not the best way to derive value from enterprise social software, however. "You need critical mass for solutions to be as powerful as they can be," Arnold said. With departmental deployments, "you can end up with Balkanized chunks," Petrocelli agreed.
Still, Petrocelli said, it may be more effective to first roll out enterprise social software to small teams that use it for specific, well-defined purposes rather than starting with a companywide deployment. "That way, people can see how it improves their work. Then you can take that success and roll it into another area."
Defining Enterprise Social
Neither social enterprise vendors nor their clients are doing a good job of showing users how social software can make their lives at work easier, Petrocelli said. "They should be doing things like demonstrating how much easier the software makes it to put together a sales proposal," he said. "That is why integration is such a big deal. How can you participate in proposal creation when so much information is living in the CRM system?"
Arnold and Petrocelli agree there is a great deal of fuzziness around what constitutes enterprise social software.
"There is convergence between file sharing software, enterprise social networks and social project management. It's getting hard to tell them apart," said Petrocelli, who recently wrote a blog post on this topic. Microsoft is a great example of this convergence, he wrote in the post, mentioning "tremendous feature commonality" between OneDrive for Business, SharePoint and Yammer. "In many cases, the decision of which product to use has more to do with how a team wants to organize its work than with the features themselves," he wrote.
"There is still a lot of confusion. People get Dropbox and call it social," Arnold said, adding that "at the end of the day, social is whatever the customer wants it to be." Enterprise social vendors need to be more assertive in promoting integration and other features that set their products apart from consumer-oriented ones, he said.
Ann All is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade, writing about everything from business intelligence to virtualization.