“About this time last month, I was undergoing a crisis of faith,” wrote IT analyst and enterprise 2.0 advocate Susan Scrupski in early September. “Faith in what brought me to this space: the promise of what the next generation web … could do to change business as we know it.”
She explained her dismay that what was once excitement at the possibilities of social media in business seems to have given way to scepticism and pragmatism; that the “philosophies of social are getting devalued as everyone starts to see economic returns”.
“My crisis of faith ended on the morning of August 31, 2011,” she wrote.
Scrupski was referring to the keynote presentation by Salesforce.com CEO and founder Marc Benioff, at the company’s recent user conference in San Francisco.
Dreamforce, which is now the world’s largest business IT conference, has a fitting, if grandiose, title. Like his former employer and occasional mentor Steve Jobs, Benioff sells each wave of new products as a revolution in computing. And like Jobs, he is sometimes telling the truth.
This year, Benioff’s story was all about the ‘social enterprise’, and impact of social media on business was the central concept in his rhetoric.
At one point, he went as far as to reference the unrest in the Middle East to predict a “corporate spring”, in which disgruntled employees and customers would overturn traditional corporate management structures, all thanks to social media.
So what is he actually selling with this vision? Last year, Salesforce.com launched a Twitter-like ‘microblogging’ service for internal collaboration named Chatter, and in March 2011, it acquired Radian6, a company whose tools monitor social networks for mentions of a particular brand or product.
But the ‘social enterprise’ rhetoric goes further than this. The company has collectively dubbed its platform-as-a-service offering Force.com, its Rails-based development platform Heroku and its hosted database service Database.com as the “social enterprise platform”. And it also announced a new enterprise-wide licensing agreement named, naturally, the “social enterprise licence agreement”.
Perhaps the most interesting invocation of the “social enterprise” meme, though, is in reference to the core CRM application, which despite its dalliances is still Salesforce.com’s main money-spinner.
There are many similarities between a social network and a CRM database – both contain profiles of individuals, including their preferences, activities and past communications.
An important difference, however, is that social networks eliminate the job of maintaining data quality. If a friend changes their Twitter handle or their name on Facebook, the platform maintains the connection, but if a sales contact leaves the company or changes their email address or phone number, business opportunities may be lost.
Similarly, to find an old school friend on Facebook, one need only know their name, not their telephone number or home address (although the same is not true for the optionally anonymous Twitter).
In light of this comparison, the Dreamforce announcement that bridged the gap between social networks and business applications most effectively was Data.com.
Not to be confused with Database.com, which is essentially a hosted Oracle database, Data.com is a new service that populates users’ CRM application with up-to-date contact information.
It gets this information through a partnership with Dun & Bradstreet, a credit rating agency and marketing data source, and from Jigsaw, a contact data repository Salesforce.com acquired in 2010. At the click of a button, the company says, paying customers will be able to access company information on 200 million businesses and contact details for over 50 million.
According to JP Rangaswami, a familiar face in UK enterprise IT circles and now ‘chief scientist’ at Salesforce.com, the Data.com service addresses a business problem that is practically universal.
“The most common reason why processes are inefficient between the customer and the enterprise is because of mismatches, errors and breakdowns in the static data for the transaction,” he explains. “Trades fail because of mismatched data.”
The launch of Data.com moves Salesforce.com from being an engine of information processing to become an information source. It also means the company is beginning to look like a social network for businesses, albeit one that is mostly fragmented into individual customer repositories.
The comparison will no doubt delight Benioff, who often poses the question, “Why can’t business software work like Facebook?” But that parallel is not wholly positive. Having accumulated the personal data of 700 million people, Facebook wields an incredible influence on its users’ lives, and some critics argue it does not do enough to ensure that influence is solely benign. Others complain that Facebook’s ‘walled garden’ design is antithetical to the openness of the web.
There is nothing to suggest that Salesforce.com has been anything but impeccable in its handling of customer data; for one thing, it is well aware that any suggestion of impropriety would be ammunition for its on-premise competitors.
Still, Salesforce.com, which according to Rangaswami contains around 150 million unique customer records in its data centres, is vying to become the platform of exchange for hundreds of millions of business contacts. This is a new entity in the ecosystem of business data, and given Salesforce.com’s record of success it is likely to be an influential one.
Will that influence be positive or negative? This is a complicated question, and those seeking the answer should not be blinded by faith.