Enterprise social software spurs connections

Before the meteoric rise of Facebook and Twitter, many organizations were far along building online communities. IBM, the first large enterprise to encourage employee blogging, now has thousands of blogs spanning every business unit. Cisco offers dozens of blogs on topics from energy management to optimizing your WAN. Outside of technology, Johnson & Johnson dedicates a site to discussions of heath care issues. And there's the legendary Marriott on the Move by Marriott chairman and CEO Bill Marriott.

Yet what binds these examples, and many others, is that they're public. Today, employees are asking for similar capabilities, and much more, inside the firewall. Sure, groupware such as Microsoft's SharePoint does a commendable job of providing workspaces and shared document libraries for established projects.

[ Considering Groove as your collaboration platform? Compare the benefits of outsourcing versus in-house deployment. | Take a visual tour of the four social software products in this roundup. ]

What these traditional collaboration tools lack, however, is a way for workers to connect without formalities -- which is a main way knowledge discovery and innovation happens. For this reason, vendors are rushing to surround consumer-style microblogging, social networking, and related capabilities with the security and management that IT and legal departments demand.

More specifically, the new wave of enterprise social products combines subscribing to feeds so that you can monitor the activities of others inside (and sometimes outside) your organization, comment on posts, and form groups to enable deeper collaboration. At the extreme, you'll find groups transformed into formal communities, each with dedicated wikis, blogs, and file sharing functions.

But there's still a catch: Many solutions provide only one solid feature (such as microblogging), while other capabilities seem like an afterthought. Because these functions aren't integrated, you're creating -- not bridging -- even more information islands within and without your organization.

With these goals and caveats in mind, I looked at the current state of social software and identified four solutions that encompass hosted or on-premise blogging, wiki, and community packages. These include CubeTree, Jive Social Business Software, Socialtext, and Telligent.

What about Yammer (free to $5 per user, per month), the first corporate social networking product? Yammer matches CubeTree's access controls, provides desktop and mobile clients, and includes a basic API. In the end, however, I felt Yammer's focus on microblogging put it in a different category than the broader solutions I formally review here. Still, Yammer's healthy corporate following shows it is a viable option for many industries.

And if you're the open source type, Laconica is my pick among the free microblogging tools.

[ Editor's note: If the tables and screen images do not display properly, see the original story at InfoWorld.com. ]

CubeTreeCubeTree's secure, cloud-based enterprise collaboration suite (hosted at Rackspace) impresses on many fronts. To begin, there's value, with the standard version free for life, for unlimited users. Collaboration tools (wikis, microblogging, blogs, file sharing, and user profiles) match the usability of popular consumer social networking sites.

For enterprise use, CubeTree's feed architecture is perhaps its most notable feature; users can broadcast their activities from within CubeTree or through integration with consumer and enterprise products, including Twitter, Google Docs, Salesforce.com, WebEx, Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, and Basecamp.

CubeTree's microblogging, similar to other Twitter-like products, handles 140-character conversations about what you're doing, with the option for others to comment. However, CubeTree makes it easier than the other products reviewed to control what you follow (such as particular people or external Twitter posts), so only relevant information gets displayed on your home page. You can further tune feeds to show updates that interest you, such as activities of certain groups. The built-in full blogging feature lets you easily share longer thoughts.

User profiles hold lots of information, yet you determine what appears about you in the "corporate directory." For example, you might decide to share all activities that you perform outside of private groups, including blog and wiki posts, along with document and photo uploads. You can also keep your account synchronized with Google Docs.

Another helpful feature, Your Connections, shows where you fit in the organization chart, your physical neighbors, who you track, and who tracks you. While this isn't a match for a dedicated expertise-locator application, it does help in finding people who might have similar interests and experience. And that's important because CubeTree lacks formal user communities.

A recent improvement to CubeTree's wiki lets you embed rich media (Google, Vimeo, and YouTube videos, as well as Scribd documents, for example). What's more, there's one-step file sharing. However, general wiki and blog editing could be improved. For instance, adding links to internal CubeTree pages requires several steps.

As noted, your profile page lists the documents you've uploaded. Basic metrics are also available, such as how many people have downloaded files you've shared and wiki page views. As such, you can quickly determine the usefulness of this material to others. However, there isn't a formal way for others to identify who are the leading experts on various topics.

I particularly liked CubeTree's groups, which are easily created compared to Socialtext's multistep procedure. Besides CubeTree's public and private groups, you can also create cross-company groups -- which I found to be ideal when sharing information with partners or outside agencies -- and unique among the products tested.

CubeTree gave me an exclusive chance to test the new group chat feature. Put simply, instead of people getting in line to comment on a post, multiple users can carry on an interactive conversation in a special chat room, much like group instant messaging.

The photo sharing feature is akin to Facebook, with the capability to upload pictures and tag people. But there's a business twist: The iPhone client lets you take a quick snapshot of a whiteboard so that meeting participants at remote sites can see what's being discussed.

Another feature that highlights integration is Trip Itinerary sharing, where you enter travel plans directly into CubeTree or by syncing with systems such as Google Calendar or TripIt. (You have total control over which trips are broadcast and which are private).

CubeDeck 2.0, an Adobe AIR desktop application, mirrors the messaging part of CubeTree. With CubeDeck, I found it easy to make status updates and comments, as well as display a full feed or employed filters.

Lastly, CubeTree has various ways to find information, ranging from unified search and document search to tagging. All worked quickly and accurately.

Overall, CubeTree's feed architecture and other collaboration tools are top performers. Add in the best security model of the cloud services we reviewed and you get strong competition to the more established products.

Jive Social Business Software 3.0I've watched Clearspace evolve over the years from a business-class wiki to a sophisticated product for building user communities. So it made sense for Jive Software to combine its collaboration and community pieces into a single solution, Jive Social Business Software (SBS).

[ Learn how Clearspace 2.0 makes the business case for social software. ]

SBS is available as four packages ("centers"): Employee Engagement, Innovation, Marketing and Sales, and Support. These predesignated solutions make configuration and management easier for IT staff or system administrators. For example, the Marketing and Sales Center includes an internal employee area for collaboration and a public marketplace to engage your customers. The new Bridging Module links the two marketplaces, while Analytics and Insights modules provide metrics and reporting.

There's also a new video module -- think of it as YouTube for business -- which is a standard component of other center configurations. Videos, which respect the security you've established, can appear alone or be embedded with other content. The video capability might be used for training and is part of the employee engagement system I tested on a Windows Server 2003 system.

SBS continues to provide one of the better collaborative wiki and blog environments. The text editor lets me create pages with rich media (videos and photos) and polls. Other users can then rate content and offer feedback.

Content is organized using a hierarchy of spaces, groups (self-organizing communities), and projects. Further, project pages may include calendars, milestones, and tasks. SBS makes sorting through all this information pretty simple. One way is by customizing your home page (or any of the secondary pages) by dragging and dropping widgets.

Additionally, Jive has made numerous improvements throughout that create a better user experience. For instance, there's a new Places widget that let me quickly see which spaces, projects, and groups I participated in. The new social bookmarking is another helpful way to consolidate information you rely upon. You can mark documents, discussions, blog posts, content in others' profiles, and external Web content; all are neatly presented within one widget.

Profile tooltips, a nice refinement, present a summary of someone when you hover over their avatar. Besides an instant look at the person's background, you can easily follow (or un-follow) them.

Jive put a lot of work into upgrading search. I liked the redesigned search results page, which makes it faster to filter results. Moreover, contextual type-ahead search now lets you search specifically within the current space, project, or group.

Although I didn't extensively test external communities (the old Clearspace Community product) this time, I did try the Bridging Module. It's a valuable dashboard where you mash up content from internal and external communities. For example, I could see popular blog posts that customers created next to which employees were responding to these customer questions.

Analytics is the next challenge for social software, and one that SBS meets. The out-of-the-box Analytics dashboard (included with employee engagement) measures who's participating the most, including the number of blogs and documents they've authored. You can also take a broader view of activities, perhaps seeing that the most popular discussion is around a particular research paper.

Conversely, the Insight module shows what people are thinking. This analysis evaluates thousands of messages (looking for popular terms or keywords that you define) and uncovers users' opinions, filtered by topic. While Insight would be critical to spotting customer complaints about a product or what they're looking for in the next version, I could also see this optional module working well internally. For example, you might learn how employees feel about a new organization structure.

Compared to Socialtext, SBS is generally more complete, especially when you're building both internal and external communities. However, with this sophistication comes longer learning time and more steps to accomplish common tasks. About the only major omission is an API. Analytics is done well, though not as robust as Telligent's monitoring feature.

Socialtext Enterprise Social Software 3.5About six years ago, Socialtext introduced the first enterprise wiki. Today, Version 3.5 has morphed into a modular platform that integrates three main applications.

[ Discover how wikis have evolved as collaboration tools. ]

Socialtext Workspace is the upgraded wiki. Socialtext People provides enterprise social networking through user profiles and Socialtext Signals, a Twitter-style microblogging interface. Socialtext Dashboard allows workers to customize the presentation of their information feeds using gadgets based on the OpenSocial framework; think of these as the Web 2.0 answer to portlets.

I tested the hosted service, which doesn't integrate with directory services (LDAP or Active Directory) and is missing SharePoint and Lotus Notes connectors. Otherwise, everything else is included.

The personalized start page blends different types of information that's displayed through customizable widgets. To begin, I easily inserted a Workspaces gadget, which summarized various wikis I used for collaboration; a variation of this widget displayed detailed information from a particular wiki. Moreover, the Recent Conversations widget showed whenever someone made a change to pages that I participated in.

Further, I displayed information from outside of Socialtext, including RSS feeds, photos, and blog entries. Next, I inserted viewers for Google Calendar and MapQuest. Perhaps more important for enterprises, the Microsoft Outlook widget faithfully displayed my corporate e-mail and calendar.

Also, because the components are based on OpenSocial gadgets, you have great possibilities to integrate information from specialized enterprise applications. For example, a programmer with basic JavaScript and HTML skills could build a gadget to display a help desk ticket's status.

Like most enterprise wikis, Socialtext Wiki Workspaces keep information in one spot rather than spread throughout each person's e-mail or shared network drives. (Because e-mail isn't going away, you can conveniently have the content of e-mail posted to the workspace.)

Like the CubeTree, Jive, and Telligent wiki solutions, Socialtext let me embed video and attach PDF files. The WYSIWYG editor, additionally, made it a snap to embed other Web content (Google search results, for example) and all types of information from other Socialtext Workspaces, such as tagged pages.

Besides an alert on my dashboard when content changed, I also used the Socialtext Desktop (an Adobe AIR application) to keep tabs on the activity streams of people and pages I followed.

Blogs are available, along with some features designed for internal collaboration. As expected, authorized users can contribute to a conversation, freely creating new posts or adding in-line comments. However, Socialtext lets you see a full history of all revisions, which makes blogs more collaborative.

Another important difference is that blog content can be tagged, then included in tag clouds or discovered using the very good search engine. And as with Workspaces, you can subscribe to blog content changes. Finally, I appreciated how easy it was to have blog content automatically appear on other blogs (cross posting) by simply tagging the post with the other blog's name.

For organizations especially concerned about security, Socialtext (with the remotely managed on-site appliance) is the only software-as-a-service offering that can be run behind your firewall.

Socialtext's REST-based API makes integration with other systems easy. And Socialtext gives IT shops extensive management tools; for example, administrators can decide which widgets may be installed or modified by end-users. I was also impressed with SocialCalc, a very slick native Web application cowritten by Dan Bricklin (of VisiCalc fame), though the software is still in prerelease form. With SocialCalc, multiple teams can concurrently work on many worksheets distributed throughout numerous workspaces.

The limitation I see is that Socialtext lacks formal communities, and it's missing a few of the lesser functions, such as polls. I'd also like to see user profiles hold more information, which would make them more helpful in finding expertise within an enterprise. But overall, Socialtext 3.5 has come a very long way in functionality and usability.

Telligent Community 5.0 and Telligent Enterprise 2.0Like Jive and Socialtext, Telligent recently renamed its products; Telligent Community (for managing public groups) was previously called Community Server, and Telligent Enterprise (for internal collaboration) had a past life as Community Server Evolution.

But whatever the name, these latest versions don't deviate from Telligent's philosophy over the past five years of delivering a platform that integrates various applications and services, whether from Telligent or your other IT system providers. That's a fundamental shift from products that often are disconnected from how enterprises manage knowledge -- typically spread throughout CRM, document management, and myriad other tools. Telligent has also addressed many of the usability concerns and functional gaps we noted in the previous versions.

[ Check out the Test Center's hands-on evaluation: Lab test: Telligent Community Server 2008 spurs collaboration ]

Telligent Enterprise 2.0's new site navigation is a key improvement because it lets you quickly browse through the most popular groups in the community. A special search function instantly pinpoints a particular group (out of potentially thousands) in the community. I also like the Favorite Places drop-down, which lets me create a custom list of groups, wikis, blogs, forums, and file galleries that I frequent.

User profiles now connect with LDAP and Active Directory servers; therefore, users' information is prepopulated when they first sign in. And the biography area is improved with an in-line rich-text editor, which lets users share photos and other information about themselves.

In the previous version, you needed database and programming skills to customize Telligent's user interface. Now, as with Socialtext and Jive SBS, you can drag widgets onto your profile page. I had no trouble adding the third-party TokBox video chat application to my profile page using Telligent's generic widget. Still, I'd give the advantage to Socialtext with its open widgets and better management.

Telligent's activity streams are somewhat like other social networking solutions. But instead of showing content "tweets" on your home page, you see an action timeline of what people are doing and talking about, which helps build social connections.

You can also post a status update to just those people within a group, which was one of my favorite new features. Other products do something similar, but it usually requires each person to manually adjust their settings to receive messages intended for specific groups.

Telligent Community 5.0 is now widget-based, too, which makes customization and branding quick and fast. For instance, I dragged a content widget to my test home page to display a special message or breaking news. I then applied a different template to completely change the page's layout.

As an administrator, it was easy to create any of the five types of groups, which range from public to private unlisted. Within these groups, there's a blog, form, file area, and wiki by default. Each group can have its own look and layout.

Similarly, end-users can customize their home page by adding, deleting, or rearranging widgets, as well as change their user profile, just like internal users do with Telligent Enterprise.

Activity streams are also improved in Community 5.0. There may be a great deal of activity in large groups, so your home page now organizes it under different tabs, such as People and Groups, Messages, and My Activity.

Telligent Analytics 3.0 wasn't available for testing. However, the software I previewed appeared to connect Web and social analytics along with listening tools in ways I haven't seen before in collaboration software. There's the typical Web analytics to see page views and unique visitors. Significantly, managers can easily see -- using the Influencer's widget -- what activities users participate in and what they're talking about. These "social finger prints" have tangible value since you might spot problems before they affect your business.

Overall, Telligent continues to refine their social software so that employees and the public are active contributors to communities. The API helps you integrate third-party services and lets resellers add features for vertical markets, such as health care. And you can analyze conversations. While those are all positive characteristics of enterprise software, there's also a downside: Telligent is far from a plug-and-play solution. The Telligent software took me the longest of all the applications to configure before it was useful.

Strong collaboration contendersIf we had scoring categories for development speed and agility, CubeTree would earn 10 in both. This relative newcomer is pumping out updates almost weekly (I tested update 63), and each adds real functionality. The service was a joy to use, but some of the features aren't as deep as their counterparts in other products. Still, with no cost for the basic version, you should pilot this product.

Stepping up, I was impressed with how far Socialtext has come from the early wiki days. The only product tested with both appliance and cloud deployment options, it's an excellent choice for regulated industries.

At the next level, where you're interested in connecting internal and external communities, there's Telligent and Jive SBS. Both products are more complex to customize and deploy but have the advantage of strong analytics. Decision-makers can monitor conversations that potentially affect the business. Of the two, Telligent nudges slightly ahead because of better integration with other business systems.

A final note: Do the math. Per-month costs may at first seem reasonable. But for a large organization, you're potentially looking at costs of a million dollars (or more) per year. On this measure alone, CubeTree's basic offering and Socialtext's microblogging option seem like bargains.

Related content:Slideshow: Up close and personal with social softwareA visual tour of offerings from CubeTree, Jive, Socialtext, and Telligent reveal their respective strengths

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Product review: Jive Software's social enterprise portalClearspace 2.0 makes the business case for social software with SharePoint integration, workable project management, and document sharing with external users

Wikis evolve as collaboration toolsLatest offerings get users swapping knowledge quickly

Lab test: Telligent Community Server 2008 spurs collaborationBlogs, forums, and media galleries integrate with enterprise applications through Web services

This story, "Enterprise social software spurs connections" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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