Enterprise social networks have the potential to become one of the primary computing environments for getting work done.

That’s the conclusion of Gartner research director Larry Cannell, one of the speakers at Enterprise 2.0 Boston 2012. The conference runs June 18-21 at the Hynes Convention Center. Enterprise 2.0 is produced by UBM, the parent company of InformationWeek and The BrainYard.

“Particularly with the integration of business applications, there’s an opportunity to provide an individualized IT experience,” Cannell said in an interview. “For many workers, the enterprise social environment can become the primary environment with which operate in the enterprise. For many others, it could become another primary environment in which they work. But for that to happen is going to take an investment in time from the enterprise IT organization. It’s going to take different priorities on IT’s part.”

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Cannell was an early member of the advisory board for what became the Enterprise 2.0 conference series–originally known as the Collaborative Technologies Conference. That was back when he was employed by Ford Motor Co.’s advanced IT group, working on collaboration and social software research and serving as a program manager for collaboration solutions. He subsequently became an analyst for the Burton Group, which was then acquired by Gartner. He currently covers social and collaborative technologies, particularly their impact on enterprise systems architecture.

Now, Cannell is watching the emergence of what he calls the “Post-2.0″ environment, which goes beyond the blogs, wikis, and RSS feeds that dominated the original Enterprise 2.0 vision. Consumer social networks, particularly Facebook, have trained employees in a mode of online social interaction that vendors such as Jive Software and cloud service providers such as Yammer have capitalized on to create corporate collaboration environments users adopt with minimal training, he said. Meanwhile, the notion of an activity feed of updates–which can come from applications as well as user status posts–is becoming pervasive in new software and Web services.

Compared with the organization-centered collaboration technologies of the past, “it’s more about serving the needs of the individual worker by providing them with ambient awareness of what’s going on in their sphere of responsibilities,” Cannell said.

The idea of an individualized or personalized experience making work more efficient echoes some of the promises of another generation of Web portals, Cannell conceded, “but hopefully we’ve learned our lessons from portals, that what’s needed is not just a one-size-fits-all solution. We want to be able to collaborate within the context of where we’re working already.” Enterprise architects need to recognize this as being “as much a data integration challenge as in integrating pieces of user interface,” he said.

Some of the technical standards that could prove helpful are embodied in the OpenSocial 2.0 specification, which is starting to show up in products such as the latest cloud release of the Jive platform, Cannell said.

Cannell also is tracking the increasing attention to social software geared toward organizing or tracking work, rather than general collaboration. One recent example is Asana, which is getting attention because its founders come from Facebook. This trend also is reflected in products such as Wrike’s social project managementSparqlight’s social workflow, and the activity feed integration with many applications in SAP Streamwork.

“I’ve looked at Asana, and I like the vision they’ve painted,” Cannell said. “It shows the pendulum swinging back from social functions to more activity-focused functions.”

Coordinating tasks, or tracking open issues related to a project, is one of the most fundamental forms of collaboration and is the focus of many Web applications and portal platforms. Despite the ferment of concepts for integrating social software concepts into those processes, there is so far no consensus of what that should look like–not the way there is with the general social software environments that are all loosely modeled on Facebook, Cannell said.

“This has long been an issue, where you’d train someone to use eRoom and then if you moved over to using SharePoint, you’d have to move them over to using SharePoint,” Cannell said. Many organizations stick to a list of tasks or issues in an Excel file on a shared network drive as a lowest common denominator means of communication, he said. So although social collaboration around work and tasks is “theoretically powerful,” it still awaits a breakthrough, he said. Perhaps that will come if a vendor like Jive delivers a concept for social project collaboration that becomes wildly popular, or if a consumer social site develops some analog that enterprise products can imitate, he said.

For now, at the level of rhetoric at least, the enterprise social networking vendors increasingly emphasize the idea that their products help get work done, going beyond idle social conversation. “I think they’re going to have to move in that direction,” Cannell said.

Support for structured collaboration, such as managing lists of tasks, explains why Lotus Notes retains a foothold in many organizations and why organizations that implement Jive or Yammer are so interested in having it integrated with SharePoint, which also offers those capabilities.

“I think we’re going to continue to struggle to cover the spectrum of needs for some time,” Cannell said.

Source: Information Week

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