The ESN crickets have been chirping for some time, because corporate social networking software is now a commodity, not a community. Disappearing are the days of hoping for ideation, serendipitous discovery, executive dialogue with worker-bees, and earning millions of dollars from new product ideas gleaned from conversations. The enterprise is tired of the hype; companies who have not seen success are ready to give up. With myriad ESN vendors, the proliferation of social features across productivity, storage and project management products, and an inability to prove that standalone enterprise social software has ROI, the commoditization will continue and eventually bury the industry as we know it. Think it’s not possible? I beg to differ for two reasons.

1. Microsoft is Committing Social Software Suicide

Like a passionate lover with a broken heart, Microsoft is poisoning its own social software efforts toward an untimely and unfortunate death. After courting its social Juliet with a $1.2 billion engagement ring and then watching her slow demise (after she threw herself a $1.4 million engagement party to celebrate her impending betrothal to the most desirable software silver fox of the Silicon Valley), Microsoft is tearing apart its social products and creating chaos in the enterprise social industry. Microsoft is attempting to fix its Yammer adoption problem by integrating Yammer and Office 365 in both features and pricing bundles. You’ve got Microsoft? You’re getting social features, like them or not.

Here’s why they’re doing this. Enterprise social software licenses for cloud-based products are not major revenue generators when compared to products like SharePoint. Salespeople are reluctant to sell social software because it’s hard to explain to the C-Suite and the intensive education effort isn’t worth it when a multi-million-dollar SharePoint deal is at stake.

Professional adoption and strategy services are even harder to sell on top of software that is supposed to be as easy to use as Facebook. As employees cling to email and other entrenched products that don’t require special adoption efforts, it’s become clear that selling Yammer licenses -- for actual money -- isn’t worth it. Therefore, the strategy is now to cut up the once finely-tuned Yammer community platform and parse out its features across Microsoft’s suite of well-used products.

There are several problems with this strategy, all of which are contributing to the commoditization of enterprise social software.

  • The Rise of “Minimum Viable Social": As “like” buttons pop up everywhere in the absence of a dedicated, standalone network, the concept of a cooperative and collaborative community is dying. The most successful enterprise social networks today began as standalone destinations for dialogue, relationship-building and knowledge-sharing. If Yammer is no longer a managed, cultivated destination, users will just take what they can get and accept the most basic features of social technology as good-enough. When a “like” is just a “like” and it doesn’t carry a greater meaning within the context of a robust community, social features will diminish in value.

  • Problematic On-Premises Islands: Is Jive in trouble? Yes, but they’re not going to be alone. Other vendors like Tibco’s tibbr, VMware’s Socialcast and Sitrion that offer on-premises social communities are also going to suffer from social commoditization. In the short term, customers who refuse to move to the cloud may continue to pay for the security of social networks behind the firewall. But don’t expect that to last for long.

    Once Microsoft figures out how to appease these customers with free minimum viable social features inside SharePoint, Outlook and Office, standalone social vendors will have to make tough choices. Do they continue to pay engineering teams to innovate on behind-the-firewall deployments already launched to some of their biggest customers? Do they have to slash pricing to compete? Or do they divest of on-premises social networking products and cut their losses?
  • Yet Another Enterprise Social Startup Syndrome: Need to track to-do lists? There’s an app for that! Want to calculate the cost of running a meeting? Download the app now. Do you want to message your team securely via iOS devices? Measure your goals? Meet up with runners at your company?

    As centralized enterprise social networking software lacks the human-centric value that it once boasted, startups are launching purpose-built enterprise social apps to manage distinct business needs one at a time. Employees are picking and choosing which social apps they use in the absence of an official single social network, resulting in the creation of more silos and the idea that social is unmanageable enterprise-wide.

With the commoditization of enterprise social software at the hands of enterprise software giants, there is little hope that existing technology will help us “work like a network” without significant investment in the human aspects of building a community. But it’s what’s coming next from the consumer space that will dilute the value of enterprise social networking technology for good.

2. Facebook at Work, Coming to an Office Near You

In June, TechCrunch announced that Facebook was working on FB@Work -- an enterprise product.

We’ve established that, for many companies, the concept of an entirely new way of working is just too much effort to expend for something so unproven and slow to achieve. Why wouldn’t Facebook capitalize on the fact that we’ve lowered our expectations to believe that “liking” and sharing updates are enough? That Minimum Viable Social keeps employees happier than they were before? Facebook is about to swoop in and take advantage of the fact that there’s nothing special about enterprise social software anymore, that it’s failed to live up to the transformative promises we’ve all heard.

“Wait, Facebook is a consumer product!” Of course it is. But work and personal lives are blending more and more, and I believe that Facebook has been eager to enter the enterprise market for a long time. In late 2010, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook Groups, which at the time was thought to be a potential enterprise email replacement. “Not today, this isn’t designed to be an enterprise product,” Zuckerberg told GigaOm about the feature. Not today. That dialogue was four years and several billion dollars in acquisitions ago. Facebook already owns the social connections in our personal lives … what’s left to conquer and monetize?

Facebook is arguably the lowest common technology denominator for people who work and have access to a computer or mobile device. Microsoft and Google, which power workplace technologies for the vast majority of employees, are focusing on their core competencies as they battle it out for email, storage and mission critical activities. Enter Facebook, “free” social technology in its most pure form, ready and willing to take advantage of the market demand and technology gap while the Tech Giants haggle over their bread and butter products.

And to the IT-purists who can’t fathom how a completely consumer product could permeate the walls of security and compliance, the stones built from acronyms like HIPAA, ISO, PII, LDAP and SSO -- consider this: Facebook boasted 1.32 billion monthly active users in June, 2014. That’s nearly 19 percent of the entire world population.

For a product this ubiquitous, regulatory issues and enterprise-grade security features are merely hurdles to be traversed on the road toward enterprise domination. Facebook has the motive AND the means to make slow and steady inroads by spending some of its $13.96 billion in laying around in cash and marketable securities to acquire the people and technology who can create enterprise-class offerings.

Facebook is fast becoming the platform upon which people with internet access live their lives. If that doesn’t convince you that Facebook is an indomitable force coming to a workplace near you, I am not sure what will. And as this happens, the concept of the enterprise social network we all dreamed of launching will continue to fall apart. After all, remember that Facebook isn’t a community -- it’s a free social tool that gives us some kind of personal gratification. As users, we broadcast, we watch, we ogle and we engage, but our feed is not an inclusive community with common goals and shared values.

My Advice: Create Your Own Vision for the Future

For the companies who have successfully created social communities, I applaud you. Keep up the good work. I hope that others will see your success and emulate what you do. Keep running, keep innovating and keep socializing.

For the companies who have yet to launch an enterprise social network, don’t let the commoditization scare you away. It’s a force to fight, but if you invest in social technology and, more importantly, strong program management, you can create an effective, robust community of employees. Don’t let vendors shape your culture. Choose the tools that are right for you and be content with slow, steady progress toward a true community.

And for the companies who don’t believe in launching a truly networked, human-centric community, I wish you luck. Your attrition will likely increase, employees will fail to engage and you’ll be passed from behind by your much more social competitors. I do think, however, that you’ll try to catch up somewhere down the road. Evaluating the cost of missed social opportunities will be a lesson learned in time, but don’t worry -- I’m sure there will be an app to analyze those figures soon.

Title image by lisbokt (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license