Horizontal social layers is the trend, but not the answer

Two stories last week that indicate how the internal motivations of large enterprise software vendors can lead to problems, because they are trying to solve their own problems and not those of users.
Yammer is clearly becoming the premier social interface in Microsoft’s plans for the workplace (as I discussed in Yammer is becoming the social UX for Microsoft), closely integrated into plans for Microsoft’s Analytics CRM, Office 365, Sharepoint, and other technologies. Last week, Mark Benioff took his schtick on the road, and announced that Chatter is becoming Salesforce’s primary user interface, as well (see Chatter will become the primary UX for Salesforce.com).
I am a strong advocate for the activity stream as a useful and powerful metaphor in social tools. So, in a way, I believe that user model will become ubiquitous, and will be central to all successful social tools, going forward. However, there is a subtle problem here, one that is unrelated to user experience. It’s about the way these vendors are envisioning the workplace that these tools are supposed to work in, and what users need to accomplish their work. They envision a horizontal social layer laid down on top of vertical enterprise applications, like ERP, HR, and CRM.
First of all, these work media tools — Chatter and Yammer in the case of Salesforce and Microsoft, but also Podio (Citrix). Jam SAP, Socialcast (VMware) and so on — are intended for very general purpose work: they are designed for the mythical everyone.
It seems intuitive: a tool that everyone can use to socially interact with everyone else about all sorts of topics. Is there a flaw here? Yes.
First of all these broad and general work media tools fail at the outset, simply because they don’t interoperate. So ‘everyone’ is limited to the subset of people who currently have an account in the same instance of the same work media tool. That generally equates to the employees of a single company, and a subset of customers, partners, and vendors: the so-called ‘extended enterprise’. (But it might be better thought of as the ‘expended enterprise’, since it is only open to those who have historically been involved with the company, not new customers, partners, and vendors.) What this means is that a great deal of critical business communication takes place outside the work media tool, in email, Twitter, or other tools. And unless the tools support a social integration, and unless users see a reason to carry those conversations into the work media tool, those conversations take place outside the social tools.
The vendors today are uninterested in interoperability, like the phone companies once were. The US government interceded and through the Kingsbury agreement, allowed AT&T to operate as a monopoly to avoid those sort of issues, but finally was broken up in 1974. in 1999, the government again interceded and forced independent phone companies to support cross service SMS, and local number portability in 2003. However, it seems unlikely that the US government will step into the work media space and enforce some sort of interoperability. The FCC considered enforcing interoperability of instant messaging in the AOL/Time Warner merger, but opted not to do so.
But leaving interoperability to one side, how else does the positioning for ‘everyone’ fail? The obvious answer is that there is no ‘everyone’. One user spend her days creating graphical designs, involved in a tight feedback loop with other designers and creatives in the New York office of an advertising agency. Another user is writing code for a new iPhone app. Another is writing blog posts and research reports for a tech web journal. And yet another is trying to sell social tools to large companies. And they are all doing other things as well, at different times.
The graphic designer does not use a single tool for all graphics work: she switches from one to another, perhaps even working on the same design documents with different tools. And that is the flaw.
Others are wise to this issue, as John Tropea wrote this morning:

John Tropea, Is enterprise social adoption suffering jack of all trades, master of none

It’s been extremely difficult to get meaningful adoption for end users when the application doesn’t have business context
When  a customer buys a CRM software, it isn’t much of a leap to understand that the software is built around the core processes that they needed
Social software has been the white canvas where you’ve had to manufacture the use cases…prove to the customer…a wiki can help you in these six ways…a blog can help you in these three ways…whereas direct design has been solving business problems

SOURCE Sameer Patel

How do we provide a little bit of structure around collaboration…for those things you do most commonly…and those are things like creating an agenda, doing a pro con analysis, being able to rank things…those are all things that we do quite frequently, but right now most vendors just say throw it into a wiki, and that’s your answer…but when you are doing it that often you need something that helps jumpstart the process
eg creating an agenda, weighing different options, ranking, timeline, decisions, tasks, polls

SOURCE Steve Hamrick

The flexibility of social tools is a boon and a challenge: While the tools can be adapted in infinite ways to support different processes & needs, that lack of inherent structure leaves people feeling unclear about how to use the tools.

SOURCE Ephraim Freed

…we should be deploying platforms and then treating them as a starting point for the development of smart, situated software that hone in on specific business needs.

SOURCE Lee Bryant (slide 16, 46)
It was always said that we the users design how the social tools are used, not the vendor…which was quite different and really cool, as the more unstructured the tool, the more we can use them for a variety of purposes. But this ends up being a type of jack of all trades, master of none scenario…
When you mix that in with people used to software doing a specific thing and being trained on it, it’s no wonder adoption is low. It’s almost like people don’t make time to think of how they can use a tool, they just want to pick it up and the tool to tell them how to use it, which if designed for a specific purpose (and designed well) will do just that.

I agree 100%.
But, as I said, enterprise vendors want to build broad tools that can be sold to thousands of people at one time, in one deal. They are stuck in an enterprise software sale mindset. The vendors are caught in a trap, building big flat layers of software that are designed for sales reps to sell instead of deep and narrow software tools that are designed for users to solve their most critical issues. And I don’t expect them to change.
That’s why I am constantly trying out small and simple apps, focused tightly on narrow domains of work, by smaller companies. That’s where the advances will come.