Despite ever effort on behalf of the staff at the Hotel W to sabotage my attendance (how hard is it to make a wake-up call?), I made it to the Social Software panel at SoftEdge this morning fresh and hyped on adrenaline. The topic of the panel was Social Software in the corporate enterprise. In preparing for the panel, I talked with a number of people who believed that the idea of enterprise social software was oxymoronic. The doubters felt that social software involved interactions that were inherently non-corporate. While it is certainly true that Friendster will not soon show utility for the enterprise, I can't say that I see anything structural in social software that would preclude value being driven to corporations. In fact, to the extent that social software is merely software that empowers group interaction, I would argue that enterprises have long used social software (e.g., Lotus Notes) and are ripe for the application of innovation in the field.
The SoftEdge panelists were able to provide some real world examples of the enterprise deployment of social software:
As Meg Hourihan pointed out, Blogger was created initially to merely manage content for internal communications at Pyra Labs and for publication to their external website. Meg told me that it was particularly powerful as she and Evan grew the business and hired a highly distributed workforce. Pyra's internal blog made it easy to communicate across State lines, and, as important to Meg, made it possible to create a strong corporate culture that everyone had a hand in forming. Similarly, one of my portfolio companies, Notiva, uses an internal blog to manage company info on everything from HR policy to development schedules to birthdays.
On the other end of the spectrum sits Tacit Knowledge Systems. Tacit lives beneath all of a companies internal data (email, documents, powerpoints, etc.), gathering info on corporate activity and creating an internal profile of each of the company's employees based upon the content that they are reading and creating. As David Gilmour noted in the panel, it is possible to then unlock incredible corporate knowledge that would have otherwise been lost in the minds or inboxes of the individual employees. It turns out that the Tacit system profiles not just information but contacts as well, thus making Tacit an incredibly powerful social networking platform. You needn't even input your contacts, the system gleans your relationships not just from your Outlook contacts but from the people with whom you email (I know that you are now thinking to yourselves, this is a giant privacy nightmare -- according to David, Tacit has gone to great lengths to leave individuals entirely in control of their own profiles).
And, of course, Reid Hoffman provided excellent examples of circumstances in which LinkedIn members were able to make valuable business contacts with others in the LinkedIn network. As that network has grown, I personally have begun to receive a greater number of contacts through my LinkedIn cosmos. Given the nature of my job as a VC, I am thrilled to have new channels for folks I trust (and folks who are trusted by the folks I trust, etc.) to introduce me to interesting early stage technology companies. So I can see the clear business value of LinkedIn and related social networking systems.
How far are companies from adopting this new generation of enterprise social software? Judging by the discussion by the panel and the corporate attendees with whom I spoke, it will be quite some time. While Tacit has lined up some impressive Fortune 500 clients, I would argue that what they are doing more closely resembles the sort of knowledge management to which CIOs are accustomed than what Spoke or Social Text are selling. This stuff may take a while to make its way into enterprises. But in the mean time social software is building a cadre of believers in the consumer space and with critical mass will undoubtedly come crossover.