Although enterprise social networking (ESN) products that replicate Facebook-like and Twitter-like functionality for workplaces have been around for about five years, Microsoft sees a big opportunity in that market, to which some feel the maker of Windows and Office has been slow to respond.
The value of ESN is undeniable in enhancing employee collaboration and communication, but many ESN implementations have failed to deliver on their promise for various reasons, such as lack of integration with third-party business software and poorly planned deployments, a Microsoft official said.
Microsoft's approach will be to increase enterprise social features in SharePoint, as part of an integrated, organic collaboration platform that also includes Lync, Outlook and its Office productivity applications, said Jared Spataro, Microsoft's senior director of SharePoint product management.
"We believe social technologies will be incredibly important in transforming the way people interact with organizations. But we also think much of the discussion happening in the industry today, led by the pure play, standalone social vendors, is somewhat misguided," he said.
"Social shouldn't be implemented just for social's sake, but for business sake. It shouldn't just replicate Facebook for the enterprise, but rather focus very squarely on task completion, on helping people get their jobs done," Spataro added.
Spataro declined to give specifics about how this vision and strategy will be manifested in Microsoft collaboration products, but said that SharePoint has been gaining enterprise social features since its 2003 version, continued adding them in its 2007 and 2010 versions, and will pursue a "people-centric" model going forward.
"The first 10 years of SharePoint's life were very clearly focused on documents. It was a document-centric system. That's exactly what the industry wanted at the time," he said. "As we look towards the next 10 years of SharePoint, we want to maintain that document strength but we're also going to increasingly become a people-centric system."
Vendors like NewsGator have provided ESN capabilities to SharePoint for years, meeting the demand of customers who weren't satisfied with the native social collaboration features of the product.
"There have always been places where the partner ecosystem has been able to innovate faster than we have, so they produce solutions on top" of SharePoint, he said.
However, some like Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz feel that Microsoft has been slow on the uptake.
"Microsoft has lagged behind vendors with more focused offerings. The decision to use SharePoint as a primary delivery device for enterprise social capabilities has advantages but speed to market is not one of them and enterprise social is a fast moving market," he said.
Faster moving vendors that have a delivery mechanism that allows keeping up with consumer trends have had the advantage so far, he said. SharePoint's biggest functional shortfall has been its lack of native Twitter-like microblogging and Facebook-like activity streams, Koplowitz said.
"We'll assume they address that in the next version. The real question is how quickly they will be able to build and deliver the next great thing. For some customers, the ability to stay on the cutting edge is a significant driver, for others it will be less critical," he said.Larger vendors like Microsoft can offer ESN features as part of broader, integrated collaboration platform, but ESN vendors like Jive Software and Yammer are demonstrating that there is "significant market appetite for an independent pure-play solution in this space," he said."Microsoft is clearly committed to the space and with knowledge worker solutions that usually translates to a lot of market share for them. That said, many customers are looking for solutions that are faster moving or more vendor agnostic so there will be plenty of room for others to be successful for the foreseeable future," Koplowitz said.
Microsoft recently hired Harris Interactive to conduct a study about ESN usage and adoption. Harris Interactive polled 202 IT and business decision makers in U.S. companies with at least 1,000 employees, where an ESN is either already in place or in the process of being developed.
The Microsoft-sponsored survey found that 59% of respondents consider it "absolutely essential" or "extremely important" for ESN software to be integrated with their companies' existing infrastructure.
The study also found that security tops the list of ESN-related concerns, followed by integration with existing systems (66%), compliance (53%), governance (44%) and the ability to build custom applications for social networking (27%).
Regarding which types of communications ESN software should facilitate, 67% of respondents said instant messaging, followed by email (64%), video conferencing (62%), being able to "follow" people, documents or sites (51%), audio conferencing (47%), activity streams (34%), video sharing (33%), being able to "like" content or people (28%) and microblogging (26%).
In December, Forrester released a study forecasting that ESN software will grow at a compound annual rate of 61% through 2016, a year in which spending for these products will reach $6.4 billion, compared with $600 million last year. Only 12% of information workers have access to enterprise social collaboration software, and only 8% of them use it at least once a week, according to the report.
In February, Altimeter Group published a report on ESN that concluded that most companies aren't implementing and using these products properly, leading to unmet goals. Missteps in planning and execution abound, and include not defining clearly the reasons for adopting ESN software and not analyzing properly usage metrics to monitor employee engagement. This in turn leads to problems, like a sharp drop in interest and usage after initial enthusiasm; strong adoption in only one department; confusion about proper use of the software, due in part to a lack of executive involvement; and lack of clarity and maturity of the organization's social business strategy and goals.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.