What if the future of enterprise social networks was to become free ? An idea that many – and, most of all, vendors – will find absurd but that came to me after I’ve made a couple of observations.
First, an enterprise social network has a few value by itself. I’m not saying it has no value but that its intrinsic value is lower that its extrinsic one. What does it mean ? That value is created at the intersection of social interactions and business activities and that a social network that’s a closed bubble disconnected from third-party applications loses a large part of its potential. The value of an enterprise social network lies at its periphery. Without connections with third-party tools, the only thing it can be used for is conversations and communities. It’s actually a good step forward but less valuable, useful, simple and productive than bringing social interactions to business events and “objects”.
What leads to the idea of social platforms replacing social networks. The best way to make the most of social collaboration is to deport its functionalities to third party tools, productivity applications, specialized applications (document management etc.). That can be done in two ways : making social functionalities available elsewhere by using APIs or by socializing each application individually.
The first solutions is the most coherent one but requires some integration and urbanization work from the enterprise. The result is a coherent social and collaborative workspace : all actions take place in third-party applications or in the social network but everything is brought back in the social network to deliver a comprehensive view and help to get rid of application-based silos.
The second is simpler : vendors are socializing their applications step by step. It comes “in the box”, it’s standard but it creates as many collaboration environments that there are tools while a good user experience and need to preserve the integrity of the flow of work and the employee’s attention would require a coherent and integrated environment.
When we see how easy it is to adopt a socialized application vs. a social network disconnected from the rest of the IS, we can wonder which one, the social network or the business app, needs the other to survive. As the whole IS is getting socialized, the enterprise social network has a real added value, something differentiating : it can become the hub where all interactions can be handled in a single environment, regardless to the silos where things happen.
Social networks adds value to other tools but they can’t live without it, while the reverse is not obviously true. Unless we content ourselves with a virtual water cooler of course…
So let’s go ahead.
Considering the issues Jive Software recently faced, I asked myself (as many others did) the following question : if this solution, the best pure player in this field, can’t get out, who can ? Ok, some pure players are making it but on local or niche market and, contrary to Jive, without the will to compete in the arms race to become a social platform of reference. And those who are not pure players ? They have enough products to “finance” their social network business and sometimes offer the latter for free, as a complement to another product. Even if profitable, their social network business unit may not be that profitable right now. It should, in the future, but it has an upside right now : it adds value to the rest of the portfolio it comes with, adds functionalities to other products. Hence the question : “who’s actually making a lot of money on enterprise social networks ?” Nearly all the practitioners, experts, observers I’ve talked with gave me the same answer “nobody or only a few…but on the contrary, with the reste of the portfolio..“. In short : the more product one has in his portfolio the most social networks are profitable, but being a single-product company in the social business field is complicated.
Hence a supposition, far-fetched or not. If the social platform becomes the OS of collaboration in the enterprise, runs collaboration in nearly all kind of application and brings coherence, what is its business model ? Isn’t it to be become free since it allows comfortable margins on other products and integration services ? Don’t forget that many vendors met success by offering some solutions for free (or for peanuts) to use it as a lever to sell the rest of their portfolio as well as professional services.
Moreover, if more and more vendors put their enterprise social networks in bundles, as a bonus gift that comes with other products, it may be because, either by vision or under constraint, that’s the model they are forced to adopt.
I admit that may look like a little hasty but what is sure is that the business model of enterprise social networks should evolve in a near future.
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