Socialcast extends collaboration to external contributors

Socialcast, a social business start-up that was recently acquired by VMWare (s vmw), has announced an update to its product that will support what the company calls the “extended enterprise:” the external contractors, partners, suppliers, clients and customers that all businesses rely on to get their work done. Users will now be able to create “external facing” groups and invite people from outside their organization to participate in discussion and collaboration.

In order to keep company data secure, enterprise social networking tools like Socialcast usually only allow people from within a company to join that organization’s social graph  — a restriction that is usually based on email domain. This makes social business tools useful for discussion and collaboration within a particular organization, but means that whenever users want to interact with people from outside of the organization, they have to use a separate tool, like email. Some social business tools, such as Moxie Software’s Spaces, do offer facilities for bringing external users into discussions, but they are usually focused on specific groups of people (customers or contractors for example). Socialcast’s new features are much more flexible, allowing users to invite external participation from anyone, but still allow the company to maintain control over data privacy.

Bringing external users into Socialcast is pretty straightforward; a user simply has to create a new group and check a box to make it “External facing.” External users invited into that group will log in and use Socialcast in exactly the same way as employees, with just the same capabilities as regular users (posting updates, commenting, uploading and downloading files, etc.) However, they only have access to that group and cannot see anything else, even the search box is eliminated, as shown in the screenshot to the right. Internal users (employees) accessing the group will see a prominent warning that the group is external facing and anything they post could be seen by external contributors.

In addition to the ability to bring external contributors into groups, Socialcast is also getting two other enterprise-friendly features:

  • User Roles. Community administrators, or IT within large enterprises, can now create permission-based access to Socialcast’s premium features, reducing the burden on IT and community administrators.
  • Org Charts. Automatically mapped org charts make it easier for people to understand “Who’s Who” in the company and their social interactions without having to leave the Socialcast community. External contributors will also be included in these charts.

I think opening up Socialcast to external contributors is a welcome move that’s likely to be followed by other social business vendors. Companies are not islands: they work within much larger interconnected networks of vendors, partners and clients. Having two separate silos of information for communication and collaboration — a social business tool and email, for example — is tricky to manage for both users and management; the way that most social business tools can only be used within an organization was one one of the reasons that I suggested that Google+ might find a home in the enterprise. Opening up Socialcast to external contributions should help to resolve that issue, while allowing businesses to maintain much more control over their information than is possible with a consumer tool like Google+. Archiving external conversations in a social business tool like Socialcast makes a lot of sense, too: if a particular user leaves a company, the business has an archive of their conversations and relationships with external suppliers, which makes it much easier for their replacement to hit the ground running. I spoke with Tim Young, Socialcast’s founder and CEO, who said that a select group of companies that have had 45 days’ worth of early access to the new version of the app in beta have seen a whopping 40 percent increase in usage, so it seems that businesses will readily embrace these kinds of features.

The new features are rolling out Tuesday. There’s no per-user charge for external contributors, so companies can add as many as they like.