One thing you can plainly say about Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff: You know where he stands, and he's never on the fence. Over the past two years, one of Benioff's key themes at conferences and speeches is how software design, as part of the inevitable journey of all software to the cloud, is embracing the concepts of social networking. Facebook, he professes, is a lesson in itself.
Then last August at the Dreamforce conference, Salesforce kicked the evolution of its Chatter platform into overdrive. Chatter is the communications layer that's integrated into its cloud-based CRM platform, but which is open for other developers to utilize as well - not freely, mind you, but by way of extending the Salesforce ecosystem. In a demonstration for RWW, Salesforce's director of product marketing for Chatter, Dave King, revealed elements of the platform that showed the direction Salesforce is intending for it - as clear and unmistakable a direction as a theme in a Marc Benioff speech: Chatter has already become a social network for business, and we're just now waking up to that fact.
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"It really changes the paradigm of how you consume information," says King. He's referring to a function in the current Chatter application where resources, schedule items, projects, 'opportunities,' or groups that collect any of these things together with people, may be followed like a feed in Twitter or a member of Google+.
"In the past, you would have to go and search. You would say, 'Gosh, has anything changed with my opportunity?' You'd go log in, search, and look for that update. Well now, in the social era, those updates come to you. You just specify, 'What am I interested in staying up-to-date on?'"
Each Chatter user's feed is updated with updates, some of which are submitted, others generated, others triggered by events. In fact, we learned, some of the events which trigger updates that appear in the feed may be programmed using Force.com instructions. The rules of these triggers create actions, which may in turn generate triggers for events in other users' feeds. One example King showed us appears here: In this test system, there's a business object representing a deal for "Green Dot Media" which has been followed by the fictitious user "Valerie Eastwood." The workflow rules programmed with Force.com dictate how the terms of this approval appear. This isn't some e-mail message where someone typed, "Discount %," hit the Tab key, typed "15%," hit Enter, and went to the next line. Instead, user "Sean Reynolds" entered the required parameters and triggered the approval request, which was then forwarded to Valerie.
It's the same concepts as Facebook and Google+ are using to develop functional apps for its users around their social graph APIs. But Chatter has sneaked up on business from an unexpected angle, not by competing with Microsoft Office up-front but by absorbing the social ethos about which Microsoft has lagged behind. Salesforce obvious goal: to replace e-mail.
One aspect of business communication which Outlook cannot possibly get a handle on is its quality. Much of Web communication today is impacted by analytics - by assessments of its value in a broader context. For individuals, the fear of being shy in public has recently been replaced with the threat of becoming declared irrelevant by social status indicators. Since Chatter is effectively, in a broad context, a content management system, it can analyze the relevance of businesspersons' individual contributions to the network of business transactions. It can leverage what we've learned from digital sociology to drive greater business value from personal interactions.
"You need to be connected to your social graph wherever you are," explains King, "whether it's in a browser or it's on your mobile device, or maybe it's in a separate application." He goes on to state that the typical software-based collaboration scenario, found in programs like SharePoint, tend to corral teams into silos for the convenience of the software. Those silos become echo chambers where employees eventually hear little else but their own noise.
"We believe that collaboration has to be in the context of your business process. There's a lot of communication tools, but what's really valuable is when you take collaboration and you put it on top of the work you're actually doing - around an account, or maybe a customer service case. That's where the power of Chatter comes in... Silos of collaboration are really not very powerful," the Salesforce team leader remarks. "What's really powerful is when you take the social experience, and you marry it up with a process."
One of the many resources that a Chatter user may follow is a file. (Thus not only is Salesforce applying social leverage to compete with SharePoint, it's also outmoding Megaupload along the way.) Following a file such as a presentation enables the user to track the processes that others do around that file - downloading, commenting, editing. If there are other processes that one can imagine, then conceivably a Force.com workflow may be developed for them.
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Another concept borrowed from social networking by Chatter is the recommendations engine - where the software actually provides the user with leads as to whom to include in a project. In a way, it's not just social networking - some might see it being dangerously close to stepping into what some would consider a managerial role. "Maybe you'd like to include Wendy in this project," for example.
"We're building this with a lot of social intelligence," explains King, "so the system - based on who you are, what you click on, what you like, what files you access, what accounts you follow - presents recommendations on who you should follow, what groups you should participate in. We're helping you with the discovery of finding out what you don't even know... It's a powerful way of building the social IQ of employees."
There's a large and growing number of functions in Salesforce Chatter Connect that resemble, or mirror, or borrow ideas from concepts we've seen in LinkedIn. Does Chatter compete with LinkedIn? Should we start considering the two in the same market segment?
Dave King answers no, citing the fact that LinkedIn and Salesforce are partners on a social data integration project. "But Facebook showed us the initial way of the user interface and the feed paradigm. And a lot of other social networks have adopted that. What's different about Chatter is that it's around your co-workers. It's how you're getting work done, and it includes business process and workflow."
That having been said, King did count Chatter as at least among the other social networks. The line between online activity and application is being blurred. And when it's Salesforce that's doing the blurring, both competitors and partners will need to take heed of whether what comes next is Salesforce doing all the talking.