Tag Archives: deployment

Enterprise Social Software and Portals: A Brief Comparison of Deployment Patterns

In my last post, I examined whether or not Enterprise Social Software (ESS) is the functional equivalent of enterprise portal applications as they existed ten years ago. My conclusion was:

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 judgment, 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.

In this post, I will focus on the observation that ESS resembles enterprise portals in another regard – how and why it is deployed.

Enterprise v. Smaller Deployments

Portals were initially marketed as a tool for enterprise-wide communication and interaction, with each internal or external user role having its own personalized set of resources available in the user interface. While there were some early enterprise-wide deployments, portal software was deployed far more often at the functional level to support specific business processes (e.g. sales, procurement, and research portals) or at the departmental level to support operations.

Enterprise social software has also been touted as most valuable when deployed across an organization. However, like portal software, ESS has most often been deployed at the functional level in support of activities such as marketing, customer service, and competitive intelligence. As a result, the promised network effects of enterprise-wide deployments have not been realized to-date, just as they were not with most portal deployments.

Internal- v. External-Facing Deployments

Most early portal deployments were internally-focused, as shown in this InformationWeek summary of market research conducted in 2001. Not only was there a smaller number of externally-focused deployments, mixed-audience deployments did not begin to appear until the portal market was extremely mature. ESS deployments have followed this same pattern, and we are just now seeing early efforts to blend inward- and outward-facing business activity in common ESS environments.

Internal Use Cases

Portal software was often deployed in response to a specific business need. Among the most common were:

  • intranet replacement/updgrade
  • self-service HR
  • application aggregation
  • document/content management
  • expertise location
  • knowledge sharing
  • executive dashboards

ESS has been deployed for many of the same reasons, especially intranet replacement, application aggregation, expertise location, and knowledge sharing.

External Use Cases

Portal software was deployed externally to provide self-service access to corporate information. In some cases, access to selected application functionality was also provided to key business partners. Retail and B2B portals enabled customers to purchase goods and services online. Process acceleration, revenue growth, and cost reduction were the key business drivers behind nearly all external portal uses.

ESS doesn’t seem to have the same goals. I have seen some, but little, evidence that external communities are being leveraged to accelerate business processes or reduce costs. Peer support communities are a good example of cost reduction via ESS. The goal of most outward-facing ESS deployments seems to be customer engagement that translates (eventually) into increased innovation and revenue for the deploying organization.

Conclusions

ESS deployments today strongly resemble portal projects that were undertaken ten years ago. Few, if any, ESS deployments have been enterprise-wide. Instead, ESS is deployed to many of the same department and functional groups, to support the same business processes, and to drive many of the same business results as portals were a decade ago (and still are.)

What does this commonality with early portal deployments mean for ESS? I will examine that in my next post. Until then, I would love to hear your reaction to what I have presented here.

Enterprise Social Software: The Second Coming of Enterprise Portals?

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.

Conclusions

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.

New Gilbane Beacon on Cloud Content Management

The term Cloud Content Management has begun to appear with increasing frequency in the last few months. But what does it mean? And how is it different from Enterprise Content Management (ECM)?

I have just written a Gilbane Group Beacon, titled Cloud Content Management: Facilitating Controlled Sharing of Active Content, that attempts to answer these questions. Here is how I briefly define Cloud Content Management and contrast it to ECM in the Beacon:

Cloud Content Management is an emerging set of content sharing and management practices and a supporting category of software built on an open, secure, cloud-based platform. It is rapidly deployed and easily used to manage content, in any format, that is actively shared among collaborators working both inside and across firewalls. Cloud Content Management is complementary to Enterprise Content Management, which is more focused on controlling access to static, unstructured content in TIFF, PDF, and office productivity document formats as it is electronically captured, stored, distributed, archived, and disposed.

The Gilbane Beacon explores the various facets of this definition and goes into much more detail as to how Cloud Content Management differs from, and complements, ECM. I urge you to download the Beacon (free registration required), read it, then return here to share comments. You may also leave comments at this cross post on the Gilbane Group Blog.

More on Microblogging: Evolution of the Enterprise Market

Following my post last week on the need for additional filters in enterprise microblogging tools and activity streams, I participated in an interesting Twitter conversation on the subject of microblogging and complexity. The spontaneous conversation began when Greg Lowe, a well-respected Enterprise 2.0 evangelist at Alcatel-Lucent, asked:

“Can stand alone micro-blogging solutions survive when platform plays introduce the feature?”

I immediately replied:

“Yes, if they innovate faster”

Greg shot back:

“is microblogging autonomy about innovation, or simple elegance? More features usually leads to lower usability?”

And, later, he asked a complementary question:

“is there a risk of Microblogging becoming “too complicated”?”

Is Greg on to something here? Do more features usually lead to lower usability? Will functional innovation be the downfall of stand-alone microblogging solutions, or will it help them stay ahead of platform vendors as they incorporate microblogging into their offerings?

One of the commonly heard complaints about software in general, and enterprise software in particular, is that it is too complicated. There are too many features and functions, and how to make use of them is not intuitive. On the other hand, usability is a hallmark of Web 2.0 software, and, if we make it too complex, it is likely that some people will abandon it in favor of simpler tools, whatever those may be.

But that dichotomy does not tell the entire story. Based on anecdotal evidence (there is no published quantitative research available), early adopters of Web 2.0 software in the enterprise appear to value simplicity in software they use. However, as a colleague, Thomas Vander Wal, pointed out to me yesterday, that may not be true for later, mainstream adopters. Ease-of-use may be desirable in microblogging (or any other) software, but having adequate features to enable effective, efficient usage is also necessary to achieve significant adoption. Later adopters need to see that a tool can help them in a significant way before they will begin to use it; marginal utility does not sway them, even if the tool is highly usable.

Simple may not be sustainable. As I wrote last week in this post, as enterprise use of microblogging and activity streams has increased and matured, so has the need for filters. Individuals, workgroups, and communities want to direct micro-messages to specific recipients, and they need to filter their activity streams to increase their ability to make sense out of the raging river of incoming information. Those needs will only increase as more workers microblog and more information sources are integrated into activity streams.

In the public microblogging sphere, Twitter provides a solid example of the need to add functionality to a simple service as adoption grows in terms of registered users and use cases. As more individuals used Twitter, in ways that were never envisioned by its creators, the service responded by adding functionality such as search, re-tweeting, and lists. Each of these features added some degree of complexity to the service, but also improved its usability and value.

In the evolution of any software, there is a trade-off between simplicity and functionality that must be carefully managed. How does one do that? One way is to continuously solicit and accept user feedback. That allows the software provider and organizations deploying it to sense when they are nearing the point where functionality begins to overwhelm ease of use in a harmful manner. Another technique is to roll out new features in small doses at reasonable intervals. Some even advocate slipping new features in unannounced and letting users discover them for themselves. Hosted deployment of software (whether on-premise or off-site) makes this easier to do, since new features are automatically switched on for people using the software.

So back to the original question; can stand-alone microblogging solutions fend off the collaboration suite and platform vendors as they incorporate microblogging and activity streams in their offerings? My definitive answer is “yes”, because there is still room for functionality to be added to microblogging before it becomes over-complicated.

Based on the historical evolution of other software types and categories, it is likely that the smaller vendors, who are  intensely focused on microblogging, will be the innovators, rather than the platform players. As long as vendors of stand-alone microblogging offerings continue to innovate quickly without confusing their customers, they will thrive. That said, a platform vendor could drive microblogging feature innovation if they so desired; think about what IBM has done with its Sametime instant messaging platform. However, I see no evidence of that happening in the microblogging sphere at this time.

The most plausible scenario is that at some point, small, focused vendors driving microblogging innovation (e.g. Socialcast, Yammer) will be acquired by larger vendors, who will integrate the acquired features into their collaboration suite or platform. My sense is that we are still 2-3 years away from that happening, because there is still room for value-producing innovation in microblogging.

What do you think?

Box.net Offers Proof of Its New Enterprise Strategy

box_logoBox.net announced today that it has integrated its cloud-based document storage and sharing solution with Salesforce.com. Current Box.net customers that want to integrate with Salesforce CRM can contact Box.net directly to activate the service. Salesforce.com customers may now download Box.net from the Salesforce.com AppExchange.

Box.net services will now be available in the Lead, Account, Contact, and Opportunity tabs of Salesforce CRM. In addition, the Box.net native interface and full range of services will be accessible via a dedicted tab on the Salesforce CRM interface. Users can upload new files to Box.net, edit existing files, digitally sign electronic documents, and e-mail or e-fax files. Large enterprise users will be given unlimited Box.net storage. The Box.net video embedded below briefly demonstrates the new Salesforce CRM integration.

While Box.net started as a consumer focused business, today’s announcement marks the first tangible manifestation of its emerging enterprise strategy. Box.net intends to be a cloud-based  document repository that can be accessed through a broad range of enterprise applications.

The content-as-a-service model envisioned by Box.net will gain traction in the coming months. I believe that a centralized content repository, located on-premise or in the cloud, is a key piece of any enterprise’s infrastructure. Moreover, content services — functionality that enables users to create, store, edit, and share content — should be accessible from any enterprise application, including composite applications such as portals or mashups created for specific roles (e.g. sales and/or marketing employees, channel partners, customers). Users should not be required to interact with content only through dedicated tools such as office productivity suites and Content Management Systems (CMS).

Other content authoring and CMS software vendors are beginning to consider, understand, and (in some cases) embrace this deployment model. Box.net is one of the first proprietary software vendors to instantiate it. Adoption statistics of their new Salesforce CRM integration should eventually provide a good reading as to whether or not enterprise customers are also ready to embrace the content-as-a-service model.