Enterprise social software spurs connections

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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

Telepresence shatters communication barriersFrom high-end suites to tabletop codecs, telepresence systems create a near face-to-face experience at increasingly affordable prices

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.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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