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Choosing social collaboration tools? Focus on business needs

When it comes to picking enterprise social collaboration tools, be sure to consider business needs and understand how social will help your company.

Alure Home Improvement has used old-school technology for many years to shuffle renovation crews and supplies between job sites. For a long time, phone calls and email kept a running record of who was going where and when.

The problem with email is that sometimes employees were inadvertently excluded, or there were lags in communication between messages, which led to employees or crews showing up to the wrong job sites.

Now the company uses Yammer, a social collaboration tools that acts as an enterprise version of Twitter. It has "broken down those invisible walls" among employees and allowed real-time communication, said John Doyle, director of technology and communications for Alure Home Improvements, a contracting company based in Plainview, N.Y.

"You can tap into information streams that interest you or get messages in front of the right people at the exact moment you need to," Doyle said. Those communication gaps translated into a clear business need for social technology, and Yammer turned out to be the right tool to fix Alure's problem.

The dirty secret when it comes to social networking is that many organizations feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon without a clear idea of how enterprise social collaboration tools will actually help them.

It's easy enough to license any of the numerous products labeled as "Facebook for the enterprise," dump it on employees, check enterprise social collaboration off the to-do list and call it a day. It's entirely different to approach social collaboration as a business-process change, as a tool to make employees more efficient or to create lasting value.

Checking in on business needs

Organizations need to take a common-sense approach to enterprise social collaboration tools by first understanding what the business needs. Once an organization has determined the right tool for the job, then training, executive support and change management become instrumental, said Steve Weissman, founder of Holly Group, a Waltham, Mass.-based collaboration consulting firm.

"Sometimes the psychology matters more than the technology," Weissman said. "If you want to change the way people work, you have to educate employees and get them to understand that change. You can't just give them a fancy new tool and say, 'Here, go use it.'"

Otherwise, organizations will just be setting themselves up for failure, he argued, which is actually easy to do now that most departments can just sign up for whatever service they want, thanks to attractive "freemium" offerings from vendors.

That freemium model is intended to give many social collaboration tools and products a viral lift in large enterprises with the notion that once a critical mass is reached, organizations will be forced to buy an enterprise service-level agreement. That's great for the vendor, but not so great for employees. Departments tend to sign up for services without really evaluating whether the product will even be a good fit.

That happened to Griffin Technology, a consumer electronics company in Nashville, Tenn., when it began using Asana for collaborative task management, said Rachel Valosik, Griffin's director of e-commerce.

Griffin Technology used Asana for about six months before it sunk in with management that the product didn't suit the organization's needs.

"It was missing a couple of features that we needed, like creating a team task through an email," Valosik said. After deciding that Asana wasn't a good fit, the company shifted to Teambox.

It wasn't too much of a pain to switch apps, but Valosik said she wished her department had taken more time to figure out what it needed and how social collaboration tools could potentially help the business, instead of just signing up for a well-known vendor.

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