We've been following the social-as-a-layer trend for several years now, mostly waiting for vendors to catch up with customer aspirations here.
The core concept is simple: rather than social networking functionality represented as a "place to go," enterprises want to inject social capabilities into workaday business processes, creating more efficiencies, improving usability, and generally creating a more humane digital workplace.
Not quite there yet
Social-as-a-layer has proven difficult in practice, for a number of reasons we detail in our Enterprise Collaboration & Social research stream.
Many vendors have -- quite prudently, I think -- focused on building social components on top of SharePoint, which famously lacks quality social capabilities itself. But this still raises the question of how to social-enable business processes that fall outside SharePoint.
Interestingly, even the more agnostic social-layer solutions like Tibco's Tibbr offering still tend to get implemented more as places than layers, and vendors have taken to emphasizing their facebook-like walls and employee profiles more than their sometimes complicated integrations.
To me, this suggests a couple of things:
- The near-term key to unlocking value still lies in specific applications (like Social Q&A), and most customers are still working on this challenge
- Comprehensive social-enablement of legacy systems often requires customers to invest in heavy integration work that's essential to providing context to social capabilities, and many of you are not quite ready to do that
A layer and a destination?
So this puts social-layer vendors betwixt two worlds: they need to find simpler ways to provide meaningful social capabilities on top of multiple underlying systems, as well as develop specific applications themselves.
Nowhere is this dilemma so vividly demonstrated as with SharePoint and Yammer -- still two very separate systems almost two years after Microsoft closed the acquisition.
Fortunately, the market seems to be adapting. In particular, vendors who traditionally focused on amping up SharePoint are now slowly spreading their coverage areas to other systems. (Ironically not so much with Yammer, though.)
As a customer, this bodes well for you in the long run. In the near term, you'll want to meter your investments here very carefully, and measure incremental effort directly against additional business value.
In our own vendor evaluation research, we recently decided to group SharePoint add-ons and more general-purpose social layers into a single new category: "Social Enterprise Layers and SharePoint Supplements." I suspect that in the future you'll see more of a convergence here.
If you're wondering if our research and advisory services can help smooth your journey, just drop us a line.