When you hear the term Social Software, many of us think of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin and other similar consumer-oriented websites. But social software is becoming more broadly adopted in the workplace as well. Gartner recently published a report assessing 17 different vendors of social software solutions for business. Some of these I had never even heard of before reading this report. Gartner ranked them in their magic quadrant graph as well as identified what Gartner sees as their strengths and cautions. I have not yet explored all of them, in depth but I am certainly familiar with three of the more popular ones: Google, IBM, and Microsoft and I think Gartner is spot-on with their assessments of these. But I would add more detail…
Google: Google has a great experience for the individual user. But because Google Apps for Work is based on their consumer-grade offering, it lacks some of the basic requirements and central control that businesses often need. Given that Google is and will likely remain a consumer product-driven company, that will always be their challenge. That also explains why they rank so low on the execution scale and miss the magic quadrant. On the other hand, they seem to have replaced Microsoft as the new golden child to consumers (think Android vs. Windows Mobile or gmail vs. hotmail) which gives them momentum in the workplace driven by end users who want to use the same software at work as they use at home. The risk to businesses is that consumers are as fickle about software as they are about women’s fashions and consumers don’t concern themselves so much about things like user support, security, high availability, and privacy. Google’s roadmap.
IBM: Of these 3 most popular players, IBM is the only one focused exclusively on Business needs, some would say to a fault. The benefit here is their solutions start with the specific needs of business and build up from there and avoid the fickle consumer-driven market. Of course, that can also be their bane. As a result, sometimes their user experience has lacked the fine tuning that the consumer-focused companies have. On the other hand, their solutions offer functionality for the knowledge worker that is totally absent in the consumer-first solutions. I am anxiously looking forward to how this is influenced by their recent partnership with Apple. Given IBM is all about business process and data center while Apple is all about user experience and personal devices, this could prove a great marriage.
I completely agree with Gartner’s assessment on IBM’s need to market to developers and third parties to contribute. The reference to customers’ perception of it as a complex solution would be valid if they were comparing on-site-based solutions. But they aren’t. In fact IBM and Microsoft are the only two of all 17 to even offer their solutions as both cloud-based and on-site. If we limit the comparison to cloud-based versions, this is not a factor. It has also been impressive how IBM has demonstrated its commitment to their cloud solutions by adopting a cloud-first strategy. Functionality is being added on a monthly basis to their cloud solution with those features being released in the software edition afterwards. I know they have a busy roadmap. I just wish it were published. Rumor and blind faith is not a business strategy.
Microsoft: While also primarily a consumer-product-oriented company, Microsoft has solid footing in the business software solution market. Microsoft is more of a latecomer to the social game, but is doing a good job catching up with their acquisition of Yammer. Yammer is good at what it does and even before its acquisition by Microsoft, it was adopted by many organizations starting with pockets of rogue employees, forcing I.T. departments to catch up. This is proof that I.T. leaders should be actively pursuing a social software solution or risk having the employees do it without them. Microsoft has a published roadmap of upcoming features.
When you read Gartner’s article, I recommend starting with the criteria definitions on the right, where they explain what they were basing their evaluations on. Without understanding their criteria, the assessment can be misleading.
I think the report avoids two very important criteria that concern businesses:
1. Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity: Nowhere in the report does it mention the infrastructure supporting these solutions. From the end users’ perspective it is irrelevant… Until something goes wrong. A hurricane, gas explosion, terrorist or hacker attack. “In the cloud” does not mean out of harm’s way. One of the strongest arguments favoring a cloud-based solution is the assumed resilience to such events. Cloud solutions can reduce the need for businesses to invest in redundant data centers, etc. provided they themselves have executed their own plan adequately. Given the high failure rate of companies that encounter a catastrophic data center event without a DR-BC plan (as published by FEMA), a CIO should be very interested in this criteria. I am very familiar with how IBM and Microsoft address this and am comfortable with both of them. I don’t know enough about Google’s infrastructure for the Google Apps for Work. Regardless of your provider, you should know their DR-BC strategy and implementation.
2. Customer Support and Responsiveness to Customer Requests: Yes, there is some mention of customer support in the Customer Experience criteria. That may have been reflected in the rankings, but it was glossed over in the report narratives. Of these three solution providers, Google seems to apply much of the same support philosophy as they have for free gmail accounts. Microsoft, on the other hand, has a good support center of well trained staff and a good escalation process. (I may be bias. I have friends on that team.) IBM is also strong here. Many of the first level support team has 10+ years of experience and the support structure is such that the same technicians tend to take your calls, so they can build an understanding of your environment and have better continuity from one call to the next. (This is mportant in a cloud environment, as they do much of your administration, so you will make more calls.)
All three of these providers have various discussion forums. IBM has Greenhouse, where you can also see new features before they go into production and can share product enhancement ideas that the community can promote. Several product managers are active participants in the discussion forums and persistent, live chat sessions, engaging the customers. When it comes to Social Business, IBM clearly practices what they preach. I expect part of that comes from IBM having a virtual office philosophy while Microsoft and Google are more campus oriented. I have yet to discover that level of public accessibility with Microsoft and Google. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and if you know of it, please share it in the comments.
Probably the biggest factor that will trump all others is where you are starting from. Mail migrations are expensive, so if you don’t pick a vendor that already provides your email system, their solution either needs to integrate well with what you have or you need to be prepared to go through an expensive and disruptive migration.