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.

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