Salesforce.com jumped into cloud computing before the term even existed. The company was founded in 1999 to offer businesses a customer-relationship management (CRM) service that ran online and didn’t require software to be installed on employees’ computers. But last year, Salesforce entered a decidedly more crowded market: the one for collaboration tools. Like other such services, Chatter takes elements from Facebook and Twitter and puts them into an application that helps employees assist each other much more efficiently than they can by endlessly e-mailing documents to each other. The company’s chief scientist, JP Rangaswami, explained to Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein, why Salesforce thinks Chatter is unique, and how collaborating in the office might become much more like a game—in a good way.
TR: What does Chatter do differently from the countless other collaboration tools that have existed?
Rangaswami: The challenge was not in designing a system to collaborate, because as you said, there are millions of them. The challenge was how to take a collaboration mechanism and associate it with systems of record. Systems of record are the replacements for books and ledgers of the firm, and have to be built with a very high degree of security. But the systems of engagement, the ways that people communicate with each other, had to be built on diametrically opposed security principles. And you don’t really want all your customer data being e-mailed around. You wouldn’t want a list of all your best customers being extracted from your system of record and then mailed by somebody who’s leaving the company.
Chatter works securely with Salesforce systems of record—and it can be made to work securely with others, such as software from SAP or Siebel. And it is based around data rather than around messaging.
What does that mean, in practice?
It allows you to follow, in Twitter terms, things in addition to people. I can follow a customer complaint, I can follow an order, I can follow an invoice, rather than just a person. I can choose which events I would like to subscribe to. And groups can be created, to allow project teams to work together. The UI by which the human in the enterprise interacts with information is a stream—curated by my own network.
Why does it make sense in a business for information to be filtered by someone’s network?
People buy from people, people sell to people. There’s something very social about the engagement process by which any sale is carried out. Because it is a social interaction, tools that allow us to reduce the noise of having separate silos are valuable.