If you are having a hard time getting your head around Salesforce’s Chatter, you are probably in good company. Chatter is a social media application that resembles Facebook but unlike that popular destination site, Chatter is focused on the internal community of the enterprise. A natural reaction to Chatter by an enterprise executive might be “so what” or “I don’t need it in my business, let the employees socialize on their own time.”
The idea of wasting time through social media is not often explicitly stated but it is felt and it is something that might have retarded the Enterprise 2.0 movement initially. But this is a false concern and the falseness becomes apparent if you view Chatter and, by extension the whole idea of social CRM, in economic terms rather than as pure business or socialization. You might think that’s a difference without a distinction but I would differ and here’s why.
I think of Chatter, within the enterprise, as an economic organizing principal because it sets up an informal and highly active trading network almost immediately. I spoke with Dan Petlon, CIO of Enterasys, a Chatter beta user the other day and that’s what he indicated so I’m going with it.
The basic premise of Chatter, which is built into the foundational layer of the Salesforce service, is that everything within the service can be treated as an object. From a specific customer or deal to a PowerPoint presentation objects can be subscribed to meaning that when something changes, a notification is automatically issued to all subscribers. People within the organization can be thought of as objects too (in only the best way) meaning that an individual and all of his or her attributes can be catalogued.
Chatter is like a crossroads and its market springs up from nothing save an individual’s interests, such as doing a job well. Since Chatter operates within the organization the traditional model of supply and demand economics is not the best fit simply because individual actors don’t profit from interactions or commerce within Chatter so much as the organization. In this aspect, with everyone working for a common good — i.e. the success of the business — it is more akin to a social economic model. What did you expect from social media, Adam Smith?
So for example, in the trading world set up by Chatter, a sales person might subscribe to a support person’s stream or the stream of a sales engineer. This bilateral arrangement is not much different from what you might have if everyone was simply very good at documenting and emailing their activities, even though we know this is rarely the case.
Where Chatter shows its power, and where the trading economy kicks in, is that the sales manager and various VPs can just as easily subscribe to those streams. So, for instance, when the sales or service rep has an encounter with a customer and needs help, information automatically reaches all subscribers who might be in a position to lend a hand. This becomes incredibly valuable when the sales rep, for instance, is out of the office. Under normal conditions the rep might have to ask for help or the need might be discovered in a monthly forecast long after the customer could have benefitted from some attention. With Chatter, subscribers can volunteer their help because a) they have the information and b) they all have the same self-motivation, a profitable company.
This is one simple example but it helps to illustrate a point. Chatter enables a freer method of sharing information, another way to say transparency. This transparency is not earth shaking but it can be game changing for while businesses and their leaders might like home runs (who doesn’t?); it’s very often the base hits that win the game.
So, in my mind the best way to look at Chatter is through the lens of economics. It enables a market of ideas that is highly efficient, aimed at one goal — the success of the enterprise by making individuals successful. It also eliminates time and distance constraints. Very often time and distance leave opportunity for competitors to arbitrage a situation, for instance enabling them to buy or sell ahead of the news. Within the enterprise this opportunity for arbitrage cannot be a good thing because the arbitrageurs are outside the company and have different interests. So, eliminating the opportunity for arbitrage is one of those key base hits that eventually add up.
Business is in a zero-sum situation right now and it will probably be here for years. New markets don’t need social media or communities simply because supply is lower than demand. But in older markets supply and demand equilibrate or demand slackens below the available supply, the story changes and vendors need every advantage to address whatever demand there is. Socializing internal communications and customer outreach is a way to differentiate a product with the best possible service — some would argue this enhances the customer experience and I would agree.
For these reasons, Chatter or something like it, appears to be the next big thing for enterprise software. Without it companies may find themselves unable to compete effectively like a store one block removed from the main drag.