Social enterprise software isn’t an oxymoron — but it’s also not a market

Fred Wilson has an interesting post about whether or not there is an enterprise market for social software. He acknowledges that some products, particularly wikis, are doing well but questions the fundamental value of social software in enterprise communities that are “hobbled by the needs of the enterprise and cannot get that magical lift that an unbounded community provides.”

I think there are a couple of ways to look at this. Yes, on the public web, the “2.0” changes are pronounced due to the masses that can participate. Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn and even Google don’t make much sense without the explicit and implicit contributions of users and this has been a fundamental shift from Web 1.0. Everyone agrees on that point, I think.

But that doesn’t mean social technologies don’t have a role to play in enterprise apps as well. Is Enterprise 2.0 a market? Not really. That doesn’t mean I don’t use the phrase ‘social software market.’ But it’s a bit of a catch-all. There are business problems, processes, applications that can and will become more social, the way these apps look, feel and work is evolving. And there are new and old vendors that are enabling that change.

I think where this will the biggest impact in the enterprise is in outwardly facing initiatives – web sites that become more two-way, user communities, more self-service and open product development processes. This is the biggest fundamental shift from the way these sites, processes, apps worked in the past. And that’s probably why this part of the market is mostly populated by start-ups and smaller companies at the moment.

Inside-the-firewall social software is simply an evolution of existing collaboration technologies – some of the social software suites on the market really aren’t hugely different from team collaboration products from a decade ago. Yes, there are different features, yes there is open tagging as opposed to structured taxonomies, yes there is blogging and so forth. But in the grand scheme of things, new features don’t equal a revolution — or a market.

This explains why the vendors that are likely to equip the most enterprises with inside-the-firewall social software are the same vendors that have been selling collaboration software for ages: Microsoft and IBM. As SharePoint gets better social networking, improved wikis and blogs, and perhaps, if we’re lucky, improved RSS support in the next release, it will become the de facto “enterprise social software” tool for all those many organizations using SharePoint. IBM will stay in the fight with Lotus Connections and Lotus Quickr, though it will likely be hard to stop the SharePoint juggernaut.

Tags: , ,