The pressure’s on for social collaboration

After riding the hype wave for almost a decade, social collaboration technology vendors now face a changing market – where they must compete with a new set of team collaboration tools like Slack. It’s been too much for some, with several players exiting or dialling back their investment here, but there’s one major new entrant that’s shaking things up.

Top takeaways

Social collaboration: down, but not out

The rapid growth and success of team collaboration application Slack (and its newer competitors), combined with the increased availability of social collaboration features in many different business applications and technologies, has created a more challenging environment for social collaboration software vendors, and the recent acquisition of Jive Software has led to further uncertainty. However, several key market players – including IBM, Salesforce and SAP – remain fully invested in this technology area, and the surprising entrance of public social networking giant Facebook shows that there is still demand and opportunity in the market.

Key trends: Use case focus, knowledge & expertise, AI, integration, video

As the competition for enterprise collaboration solutions heats up, social collaboration software vendors are under increasing pressure to clearly articulate their role and benefits, and this is leading to a greater focus on specific use cases with tailored, packaged offerings. Other key trends shaping vendors’ investments include: a renewed emphasis on sharing knowledge and identifying experts across the organisation; increased use of AI and analytics to enhance the UI; better integration support to enable social collaboration to become part of business workflows; and new ways to leverage video-based communications within social collaboration.

Suffering from a hype hangover

It’s fair to say that since we published our last major overview of the social collaboration software market in 2015, the landscape has changed dramatically. Once the darling of the enterprise collaboration space, enticing business leaders with the prospect of transforming the corporate culture and rocketing employee engagement levels, today the social collaboration software market is struggling to maintain its identity and credibility in the face of the next wave of must-have collaboration technology. So is this the end for social collaboration and enterprise social networks?

A shifting vendor landscape

The peak period of consolidation for the social collaboration market has long since passed (many of the pure play vendors that helped define the market, such as Yammer, Socialtext and Socialcast, were acquired in 2011/2012), but earlier in 2017 we also saw the acquisition of the last major independent player in this space, Jive Software. Having filed for IPO in 2011, Jive had struggled to achieve profitability (achieving it only through a major restructuring), and over the last couple of years began to see its growth tail off. In May, the company announced it was to be acquired by private equity firm ESW Capital for $462 million, and would become part of the Aurea portfolio. (Aurea was another of ESW’s acquisitions; ESW also acquired Sitrion – formerly NewsGator – this year.)

While Aurea has yet to fully articulate its strategy for Jive in the context of its broader, largely customer engagement-oriented portfolio and positioning, just a few months after the acquisition, Aurea confused the picture further by selling off the Jive-x product to its external communities competitor Lithium Technologies (which itself had been acquired by Vista Equity earlier in the year).

Alongside this flurry of acquisitions by equity firms, we’ve also seen some vendors dialling back their investment in the social collaboration opportunity – notably those who once saw social collaboration as a way to open up new markets for them, such as infrastructure players TIBCO (tibbr) and VMware (Socialcast). The products haven’t actually disappeared, but product updates have been few and far between, with little or no marketing activity around the brands. Clearly, this hasn’t been the market opportunity that they were hoping for.

A saturated market?

So what is behind this shift in the social collaboration space? There are a few indicators and trends that we can point to:

  • Declining demand for enterprise-wide social collaboration platforms. It’s astonishing to realise that social collaboration technologies have now been around for about a decade. We are now reaching the point where there are fewer organisations looking for an enterprise social networking solution – or more accurately perhaps, there are fewer organisations prepared to invest heavily in both the technology and the business change to make such an investment a success. Social collaboration has had a huge impact for many organisations (we have a library of around 20 case studies demonstrating this), but its success on an enterprise-wide scale requires a level of commitment from senior executives that many organisations struggle to achieve (and maintain).
  • Increasing pervasiveness of social collaboration features. One of the major successes to come out of the social collaboration software market is that vendors of all kinds of business technology have realised the importance of delivering social, collaborative capabilities within an application’s UI in order to drive usability and increase the levels of collaborative interaction that can take place within the context of the application itself – improving the “stickiness” of the application. Comments threads, activity streams, following of people and content, and notification features are now standard components of many business applications, enabling business users to work more effectively within their existing technology environment – and for many organisations this is as “social” as they need. Pure-play social collaboration platforms offer much deeper, richer and broader collaborative functionality than is available in these socially-enabled applications, supporting the creation of a rich social network that spans the organisation, and applicable in a variety of different use cases and contexts. However, it can be hard to communicate this difference to an audience that has yet to acknowledge a need for better knowledge sharing or a more networked and interactive organisation, and sometimes, this added functionality is simply overkill.
  • There’s a new collaboration kid in town. If social collaboration’s star was already fading, the entrance of a new wave of team collaboration tools – led by Slack – helped to fully divert attention away from social collaboration as the technologie du jour. Where social collaboration’s primary challenge is the investment in community and change management to deliver enterprise-wide adoption (which is needed to drive value from the social network), Slack – and its new competitors Microsoft Teams, IBM Watson Workspace, Atlassian Stride et al – has had a huge viral impact within organisations, due to its focus on specific, team-oriented activity. It comes back to the importance of collaborating with a purpose: because Slack conversations are tied to a particular project or process, there’s no need to explain to people what they should be using the tool for. And because Slack’s value (and ROI) is not dependent on adoption beyond that one team, there’s no need for difficult business case and ROI conversations with management.

Against the tide: Facebook jumps in feet first

The number of major social collaboration software players has declined, but there is one notable exception to this trend of market exits. In October 2016, after an 18-month, limited access beta, public social networking giant Facebook made waves by releasing its own internal social collaboration solution, called Workplace by Facebook (previously referred to as Facebook at Work).

Despite its lack of business software market experience, Facebook has had a huge impact on the space already, with 30,000 organisations now using Workplace by Facebook. While many social collaboration specialists have been annoyed at the description of social collaboration tools as “Facebook for the enterprise”, and others have dismissed Facebook’s offering as simplistic, there’s no doubt that the brand and people’s familiarity with the consumer application has helped with this early traction. Of course, it’s still early days: despite becoming generally available a year ago, Facebook has only in the last month started charging its Premium customers to use Workplace; the focus until now has been on getting companies using the product, with monetisation taking a back seat to adoption. This approach has certainly been effective, and while some organisations may be less ready to embrace Workplace now that the costs come into effect, Facebook’s pricing is considerably lower than that of other players in the market.

Emerging social collaboration trends

Clearly, there’s been an awful lot of change in the social collaboration marketplace, but while it may not be the desirable, hyped space that it was a few years ago, it has not completely imploded. Several major players are still competing for business, and there’s a very high profile new entrant to the space. Here are some of the key characteristics and trends defining the social collaboration space – and vendors’ product roadmaps.

Focused use cases dominate vendor strategy

A trend that has been building for some time – but that is now really reaching tipping point due to the factors outlined above – is the focus on specific use cases for social collaboration, often with packaged offerings to support them. For a long time, vendors talked about social collaboration implementation in very general terms, pointing to the benefits from an enterprise-wide perspective; of connecting the organisation through an enterprise social network. As the challenges of that approach became more apparent, we’ve seen vendors start to zero in on particular use cases where the software can deliver value in a more immediate and tangible way, solving specific business problems – while still promising the broader benefits in the long term. With many social collaboration investments driven out of individual business units (notably sales and marketing, communications, HR and IT), this approach allows vendors to specialise in a particular use case(s), tailoring integrations, templates and the development roadmap to maximise their ability to win and retain those clients. Once in place, there’s then scope to expand into other business areas and use cases.

The primary use cases for social collaboration right now are:

  • Social intranets and the digital workplace. Driven by communications and/or IT buyers, there remains a huge market of organisations seeking to modernise their ‘end user computing’ workplaces, often replacing clunky, out-dated and poorly-used intranets with more open, interactive platforms for sharing news and corporate information. Social collaboration features are almost always part of the selection process for intranet technologies, although in practice they may not form part of the initial implementation, with many organisations remaining cautious about enabling them. Where they are enabled, it’s often the conversational features (such as comments and activity streams) that are highest priority rather than social networking and expertise location, though profiles features may be enabled to enable the creation of corporate directories.

Vendors targeting this use case include Aurea/Jive, IBM, Igloo Software, Interact and SAP.

  • Learning and employee onboarding. Driven by HR and learning & development buyers, this use case is gaining traction for social collaboration vendors as HR professionals go through a broad transitioning process to modernise approaches to learning and employee engagement. The integration of social technologies with learning management tools enables learners (and trainers/teachers) to collaborate around training courses or pieces of training content, and provides rich information about people’s skills, connections and interests. In the context of employee onboarding, the technology can help address the critical period when a new employee joins the organisation, when there is a need to envelop the individual into the company culture and give them everything they need to become a productive member of the team as soon as possible.

Vendors targeting this use case include IBM and SAP.

  • Sales enablement and service desk. Driven by sales and customer service buyers, this use case offers clear ROI around customer retention and accelerated problem resolution. Collaborative groups relating to specific customer accounts, opportunities or service cases allow employees to work together to accelerate decisions and resolve issues, while activity streams enable individuals to track the progress of events or tasks either directly or indirectly relevant to them. However, while these departments might drive initial investments, it’s not just sales and customer service employees who need to be part of collaborative processes; there’s often a need to engage experts from other parts of the business to get the latest information, or to get answers to specific questions, and this is where the department-specific use case starts to expand to a more enterprise-wide collaboration scenario.

Vendors targeting this use case include SAP and Salesforce.

  • External communities. Most social collaboration use cases focus on scenarios inside organisations, but the technology can also be applied in an externally-facing context, enabling interaction between the organisation and its customers, prospects, members or partners. Despite the similarities with internal social collaboration, however, there are also some key differences, for example through a greater emphasis on ratings and reviews, and integration with commerce applications, helpdesk ticketing tools, and organisations’ other web properties and social media. Specific use cases for external communities include marketing and customer engagement, customer support, partner support and enablement, and closed membership communities.

Vendors targeting this use case include Lithium Technologies, SAP and Salesforce.

The one notable exception to this trend is Facebook, which currently positions Workplace very much as a generic enterprise collaboration solution. As a newcomer to this market – and given its one-size-fits-all approach as a consumer service provider – this is not perhaps surprising, although as it becomes more established Facebook, too, is likely to adopt a more use case-oriented approach, even if only with regards to how it markets and positions Workplace.

People and knowledge; skills and expertise

With the surge in popularity of team collaboration tools like Slack, social collaboration vendors are doubling down on one of the key differentiating aspects of social collaboration tools – the importance of connecting people and knowledge. The relationships (“connections”) between people, content and information that develop within a social collaboration environment – also referred to as “graphs” – provide a wealth of information about who knows about what, and vendors are increasingly recognising the value of analysing and taking advantage of this to help individuals get the information they need more quickly. This might include finding the right person to ask for information on a particular topic, finding the right person to carry out a particular task or role in a project, suggesting people to include in a new community group, or suggesting who an individual should connect with or follow, for example.

Expertise and skills search can be enabled in a fairly manual way by enabling individuals to self-identify for particular skills, or even through endorsements by peers (in the same way as you can tag connections in LinkedIn for their skills). However, there are more sophisticated approaches too: these analyse activity to understand a) who has an interest in a topic (through posting about it, following discussions on the topic etc.) and b) who knows what they’re talking about (through likes and sharing of posts, or through having answers marked as the best answer in a Q&A scenario, for example). The key is that this information evolves over time, so it doesn’t depend on people keeping their profiles up-to-date.

Among the leading social collaboration vendors, SAP and Salesforce both have strong capabilities in this area, and Microsoft is heading this way as it develops Delve and the Office Graph. It’s also worth noting that there are some interesting niche players that draw heavily on machine learning to enable skills-based search and recommendations on their platforms, with examples including ProFinda, which matches skilled resources with available tasks, and ManyWorlds, which provides a people and content recommendations engine that layers on top of an organisation’s social collaboration application.

Analytics, AI and bots driving and enhancing the user experience

Another key trend that focuses on improving and streamlining the user experience is the growing use of analytics and AI technologies within social collaboration applications. Enabling individuals to better handle the vast amount of information they receive in an established social collaboration environment has always been a major challenge for vendors, and we’re now seeing solutions move beyond building more sophisticated filtering options to automatically personalise the information they see first. New capabilities in this area focus on improving understanding of both the content of the activity stream, and an individual’s interests, preferences and immediate work focus to show them the information that is most relevant to them. IBM and Microsoft have introduced features here, with IBM’s new cognitive “Orient Me” home page, and Microsoft’s graph-based search suggestions across Office 365. Salesforce is also leveraging its Einstein AI capabilities to deliver tailored recommendations of content and people.

IBM’s Connections offering goes even further, leveraging Watson AI services to provide a “personal assistant” experience within Connections communities, proactively answering questions asked by community members based on an understanding of content and conversations taking place elsewhere in Connections and across corporate knowledge bases. This is a clear example of social collaboration vendors embracing the current trend for chat-driven interactions with applications – something which Facebook is also a champion of, through its support for bots within Workplace groups and the Work Chat (i.e. Facebook Messenger within Workplace) feature. We expect bots to become increasingly widespread within social collaboration offerings, particularly as a way to drive integration with third-party applications and technologies, enabling increasingly complex workflows.

Integration, co-operation

Integration has always been crucial to the success of social collaboration; collaboration does not exist in a vacuum, and there is limited value in forcing people to choose (or move) between the tools that house their business data and the tools they use to communicate and collaborate with others. As team collaboration tools increasingly gain traction as the place where work gets done, integrating with business applications and workflows to become the hub for business activity, the role of social collaboration technologies in this picture becomes more confused. Whether vendors opt for co-existing with or substituting for team collaboration tools, more and easier integration will be a necessity – both with other collaboration technologies, and with business applications.

As the trend towards more tightly focused use cases and packaged offerings accelerates further, we’ll also see an increased emphasis on integrating with line-of-business applications – not just those offered by specialist vendors themselves, but also with third-party technologies, providing flexibility and acknowledgement that organisations’ IT environments are rarely limited to a single provider. Among the major social collaboration vendors, it’s not surprising that integration with business processes is best-supported by SAP and Salesforce, with those that have focused more on the generic enterprise social network use case (IBM and Facebook in particular) now investing heavily in their integration capabilities.

Embracing video

The importance of video in social collaboration tools has been building for some time, with vendors enabling the upload and sharing of video, and many providing (or integrating with) IP-based 1:1 or group video chat capabilities within their products. However, video is playing an increasingly important role in many organisations’ collaboration and communications habits, and social collaboration vendors are responding with more wide-ranging features. One high-profile example is the inclusion of live video streaming within Workplace by Facebook, bringing the highly popular and accessible Facebook Live capabilities into an enterprise setting. The most commonly referenced use case for this within an organisation is for executive broadcasts or “Townhall” Q&A sessions, but as the feature is available to any user, there are many other more day-to-day potential use cases of live streaming. For example, an engineer visiting a customer site could live stream an inspection to a group for training purposes, or alternatively to get assistance for an unusual problem.

Another vendor incorporating video functionality to support learning use cases is SAP, which provides a built-in video recording tool in its social collaboration offering. What’s particularly interesting is that this also includes the ability to annotate specific timeframes in the video, so that students can highlight sections that they don’t understand or have comments on, for example.

It’s not all over yet, but the pressure’s on

Despite the challenges facing the social collaboration software market over the last couple of years, there is clearly still positive momentum within the space, with an admittedly smaller number of major players still investing in this technology and market opportunity. One thing is for certain, however: there is more need than ever for social collaboration vendors to clearly identify, articulate and provide solutions that meet the needs of specific business problems, rather than talking generally about “better collaboration”. With the new wave of team collaboration tools bringing a new perspective to the table, and the entrance of Facebook driving down prices, a generic, technology-focused sell – as opposed to one that addresses clear business use cases – will simply result in more vendor casualties.

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