Enterprise Social Software (ESS), at first glance, is eerily similar to the portal software that was the hot enterprise toolset 10 years ago. That became very clear to me during the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston last month, even though I was only able to attend the first 2 (of 4) days of the event.
I have noticed and commented on the parallels between the portal software market as it existed a decade ago and today’s enterprise social software category in a previous post. However, the notion of their similarity was reignited by a comment that I overheard as I walked through the exposition space at this year’s E2.0 Conference. One individual said to his companion something to the effect that if the branding was removed from each vendor’s ESS demo, one would be hard pressed to say which offering came from which specific provider. In other words, there was very little differentiation of user interface (UI) layout or functionality. In fact, every screenshot and live demo that I saw looked like a portal, in that the UI was a collection of data and unstructured information aggregated into a single interface and presented through a number of widgets.
Similarities in Functionality
In 1999, Delphi Group published a portal architecture diagram, which depicted the layers of functionality that the firm thought were required of a robust enterprise portal solution.
Examining each layer of the portal architecture model and commenting on its applicability to ESS as it exists today will allow us to determine whether ESS really is just another incarnation of portals or if there is something significantly different being offered.
Presentation: In portals, data, unstructured content, and application functionality were aggregated from multiple sources and presented in widgets, whose layout on the screen was usually customizable by individual users. ESS strongly mimics this UI design, including, in some cases, the ability to customize which widgets are displayed. Most ESS providers are beginning to offer application stores stocked with widgets that can be run in their offerings, exactly like portal software vendors rolled out portlet libraries for their users a decade ago. Finally, portal access on mobile devices was big deal 10 years ago, as is mobile access to ESS functionality today. So portals and ESS certainly appear to be the same.
Personalization: The primary value-add of portal software, in addition to it aggregation capabilities, was its ability to personalize (and, thus, filter) information based on a user’s unique digital identity and organizational role. ESS needs to improve vastly in this area; currently, most information must be manually filtered. This typically occurs via selection of one or more parameters ( to narrow the organization’s activity stream) or by following an individual, group, space, or tag. ESS should apply more profile information and use heuristics to dynamically effect what information is applied on an individuals dashboard or home page.
Collaboration: Some portal deployments embedded collaboration workspaces or their individual elements (IM or chat, discussion forums, polls) into the UI, but, in general, most deployed portals fell short as full-fledged collaboration tools. ESS is a definite improvement here. The array of available collaboration tools is richer and they are more usable, which results in higher adoption.
Process: There was a lot of ink spilled about process portals, but the promise was never fully realized, although there were some exemplary deployments. Process portals had workflow (BPM) either embedded directly into the portal technology or available though an integration with a stand-alone process engine. Similarly, there has been much talk about the need to process enable ESS. The good news is that we might actually execute on the vision this time around. We are beginning to see process-related notifications generated by applications integrated with ESS appear in activity streams. The next step will be to add lightweight activity and information coordination functionality (not full-blown, rules-based BPM) to ESS.
Publishing & Distribution: Portals were (and are) used to publish links to documents, syndicated content, and web clippings. ESS is also used heavily to publish and distribute content and goes well beyond what was possible in portals 10 years ago by adding additional content sources such as status messages, shared bookmarks, blogs, and wikis.
Search: Despite the push nature of information flow in portals, the ability for individuals to find and pull information was also very important for portal users. Search is equally important in ESS and, generally speaking, has under-performed, as it did in portal implementations. So, unfortunately, the similarity in this aspect between portals and ESS is negative in effect.
Categorization: Taxonomies were widely used in portals deployments to aid information personalization. They are still important in ESS, but their new relative, Tagging, is equally valuable in its ability to aid information personalization, browsing, and recall. We now have more tools at our disposal to apply to the information overload challenge than we did 10 years ago.
Integration: Integration of other enterprise applications and content sources was key to realizing the value that portals offered through their ability to aggregate information into a single interface. Portal integration was accomplished using a combination of hard-coded connectors, XML, and JSR-168/WSRP standards. The ESS value proposition also seems to be closely tied to the integration and aggregation model. However, ESS makes better use of defacto integration standards, including REST, RSS, and OpenSocial.
From a functional perspective, ESS is quite similar to enterprise portal software in the way that it presents information, but that does not tell the whole story. ESS lacks critical personalization capabilities, but provides better collaboration, process, publication and distribution, categorization, and integration functionality than portals. In my judgement, ESS is somewhat similar to portal software, but mainly in appearance. It makes more functionality available than portals did, but needs to add a key missing piece – personalization.
Are there similarities in deployment patterns between ESS and portal software as it existed 10 years ago? If so, what do the functional and deployment affinities between the two software categories mean for the evolution of the ESS market? I will attempt to answer those questions in my next post. Until then, I would would appreciate any comments or questions you have on my analysis of their overall functional likeness and differences.