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Business Report

Not Your Father's Intranet

Socialtext is fueling corporate collaboration one tweet at a time.

Most company intranets are little better than corporate newsletters: static, lifeless, boring. “You know what the most visited corporate intranet page is?” asks Eugene Lee, CEO of Socialtext. “The cafeteria lunch menu.”

Eugene Lee

Socialtext, a nine-year-old company based in Palo Alto, California, aims to make the corporate intranet sexy again. In the process it is changing the way silo-bound corporate citizens collaborate.

Enterprise social technologies often do only a few things well, although many are rapidly adding features and integrating with larger applications to try to be everything to everyone. Employees use popular services like Yammer and Socialcast—often on their own initiative—for Twitter-style microblogging and Facebook-like social networking, for instance. Socialtext wraps that kind of “activity stream” and social network together with a host of others features, including blogs, wikis, document-collaboration workspaces, and tags that help people find information and experts on a topic.

A feature called Socialtext Signals allows employees to post, in 1,000 characters or less, status updates and messages to everyone at the company, to a particular working group, or to an individual. The stream of posts works like Facebook’s News Feed, occupying a position front and center on an employee’s dashboard-like home page. Each post, or signal, is part of a threaded conversation in which employees can respond to comments, add links to content, and tag information.

Rather than being made up of random posts about what someone ate or read, most Socialtext entries are created automatically as a result of collaboration with other people. These “in the flow of work” updates happen whenever someone does something productive in Socialtext that others in the company should know about—comments on a blog post, responds to a question, edits a wiki page, or tags a profile. The idea is that people demonstrate their value to the company not by what they say about themselves but by what they do.

In addition to traditional information like a person’s title, location, and department, tags can display work-related experience, areas of expertise, working-group affiliations, and interests. Employees can tag each other’s Socialtext profiles with information as well.

The software isn’t staging a popularity contest, however. It’s all about productivity: no “friending” at work. Socialtext has adopted Twitter’s approach, in which users choose to follow other users. The service works through a Web browser, a desktop application, and mobile devices, and it can be hosted on the cloud or in a company’s data center.

Already, Socialtext customers like Getty Images and the American Hospital Association (AHA) have replaced their intranet home pages with a Socialtext dashboard. Before the AHA implemented Socialtext, employees found it hard to collaborate with each other on issues of health-care reform, says Karthikeyan Chakkarapani, director of technology solutions and operations. He says the company was using up to 15 software-as-a-service applications to facilitate collaboration.

Before deciding on Socialtext, Chakkarapani looked at a half-dozen other similar applications, including Yammer, Jive Software, and Salesforce.com Chatter. “The problem is no one had an open architecture,” he says. “With Socialtext, we were able to integrate it into our other enterprise applications and build a one-stop platform that people can easily access.” The features that AHA employees use most frequently include the activity stream and wikis.

The organization has more than 500 employees in all 50 states, and it works with hospitals in many small rural towns. Chakkarapani says that since the organization launched Socialtext in August 2010, communication and collaboration among far-flung employees and managers have improved significantly. With the new platform, team members have been able to get quicker updates on projects, share ideas more easily, and work together more productively.

Many other organizations are rushing to add social tools like tweets, blogs, and status updates as well. A 2010 survey from InsightExpress found that 77 percent of global businesses expected to increase their investment in collaboration tools over the next year, with India and China being the most enthusiastic adopters.

While many companies see the value of collaboration tools in breaking down informational and functional silos, they have trouble determining which tools will work best for their organization and employees. Many staff members want the freedom to use the tools they like best with little oversight from the central IT department, but that often results in a hodgepodge of unsupported apps.

An even bigger issue is that most popular tools do little more than encourage people to blab about work. Socialtext is instead helping people get work done. It showcases productivity.

In 2010, Socialtext launched an initiative called Socialtext Connect, which encourages third-party developers to use its application programming interface (API) to seamlessly pull enterprise-level updates into the activity stream. Companies can build software agents that listen for certain events. When an order closes in Salesforce.com or a document is edited in SharePoint, the activity stream can display that fact.

In many ways, it is analogous to the way Facebook’s News Feed can pull information from third-party sites, says Lee. For example, a Socialtext update might read, ‘John updated the latest CRM record for the Acme Corporation account.’ When clicked on, that could take someone to a Salesforce.com record to learn more. Under the message in Socialtext, colleagues might have a conversation about what steps they must take to win that account.

“If you’re a CRM or ERP vendor, it has been fashionable to add social features onto your application, such as with Salesforce.com’s Chatter,” says Lee. “The problem is, if companies use those applications as their approach to adopting social software, they will end up having a social network for their sales team and their app, another for their finance team and their app, and another for their product team, and so on. All of these applications will be walled off from one another, and a company won’t realize very much cross-functional collaboration that transforms the business. Socialtext is instead a layer that spans the enterprise.”

Socialtext aims to unearth and share the valuable information that often lies buried inside static intranets—inventory levels falling low or customer complaints bubbling up overnight.

“Two years ago I would have spent a lot of money and resources to implement social technologies within our organization,” says Chakkarapani. But now, he says, enterprise- and budget-friendly tools are within reach.

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