2011 was the year of the Social Business. We saw employees across all types of organizations using both desktop-bound and mobile social tools to interact with the entire business ecosystem. But, while there's no question about organizations increasingly using these tools to collaborate and communicate, were enterprises truly able to capture their full potential? Let's take a look back at a few highlights from the past year.

Social Tools

Twitter Gets More Money and a New Business Model

In the microblogging scene, 2011 seemed to be Twitter's year. The microblogging service got a few rounds of financing to the tune of several hundred million dollars. In August, series G financing fetched US$ 800 million, and we recently reported on another US$ 300 million investment. Can you say "US$ 10 billion valuation" in less than 140 characters?

But apart from money, Twitter has reinvented itself not once, but twice, this year. The #NewTwitter that had been in preview for so long was finally put in place as the default interface for everyone. But that was short-lived. Just a few weeks after, Twitter launched a redesign, this time introducing a new tabbed interface that focused on connections, discovery, and "me." Twitter is gearing up to launch its microblogging service as an advertising platform (finally?), and this year's rounds of financing will give it leeway to play around a bit with its business model prior to (finally?) running an IPO.

Facebook Launches Timeline, iPad App & an Annoying Ticker

Facebook has acknowledged that mobile is the way to go, and has revamped and relaunched its mobile clients -- for iOS, Android and mobile web -- for easier access to search and commonly-used functions. This year, Facebook teased users with an iPad application, which had been leaked to much excitement by iPad users prior to its official launch. Facebook has also revamped its profiles user interface, with Timeline, through which a user's profile is changed from a static page with connections and interests to a single scrolling page, where an account's entire lifetime is presented in reverse-chronological order.

Even with these improvements in mobile apps and profile interfaces, Facebook has been panned for the dreaded ticker, which seems to keep on updating users about friend activities, up to the latest sneeze and wink. Add to this the intrusive way some apps broadcast which webpage or content you have recently read without your consent. Pros and cons aside, one thing that Facebook got right is the way it will improve business-to-customer communication with the upcoming Private Messages for Pages feature and its newly-launched Subscribe button for websites. Will these features and the social network's 800+ million users give the company enough momentum for its rumored 2012 IPO?


Google Makes a Big Push Toward Social

This year also saw Google go social. Again. After its failed bid to take over the social networking world with various applications like Wave, Buzz and perhaps a whole lot more that did not reach public beta, Google finally got it right with Google+. The social network's use of Circles is a fresh take on Twitter's "follower" model and Facebook's "friends." Google+ also integrated with other services like Gmail, Reader, YouTube and even Search and third-party websites with the +1 button -- the equivalent of "Liking" something.

And yet, even with millions of users in the first few weeks of public beta, Google+ missed a key feature that enterprises and businesses needed: brands. Facebook had Pages, and Twitter allowed brands to run accounts. Google+, however, launched as an individuals-only affair in its first few months. Google has since Google+ Pages for brands and businesses to cater to the needs of entrepreneurs and marketing departments. Whether this gains traction, we will have to see, as companies don't seem to care too much about Google+ pages compared with their presence on Facebook.


Microsoft Isn't All Academic

Just recently, Microsoft went public with its newest social initiative, so.cl. But while it's named as such, it's not exactly a social network like Facebook or even Google+. So.cl is designed as a learning and collaborative tool for students. Powered by Bing technology for its searches, so.cl aims to build communities around users from the academe with similar interests. Unlike Google, Microsoft does not have plans to integrate the upcoming service with its enterprise offerings, at least for now.



Social Business Tools

Demand for social tools in the work place grew in tandem with demand in the consumer space. Yammer, for example, went full-on Enterprise with release after release of business integration tool sets, while competitors such as Salesforce.com fought back valiantly with their own tools for Enterprise Collaboration.

"We need to transform the business conversation the same way Facebook has changed the consumer conversation," said Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com CEO. "Market shifts happen in real time, deals are won and lost in real time, and data changes in real time. Yet the software we use to run our enterprises is in anything but real time. We need tools that work smarter, make better use of new technology (like the mobile devices in everyone’s hands), and fully leverage the opportunities of the Internet."

Meanwhile, even bigger giants like Jive, IBM and Microsoft came to the party with their even bigger tools/social layers, and managed to take the lead in Gartner's Social Software Quadrant

But in the end businesses found themselves in a place full of too much chit-chat when treating these tools in the same manner as their consumer-facing ones. As it turns out, internal tools facilitate effective communication— they make it easier to have and to come by, but they can’t be depended on to fully actualize it.

And so, towards the end of the year we saw a stripped-down, people-first approach: Dropbox’s simple angle on cloud-based file sharing may not be able to compete from a feature standpoint with the likes of Box.net, but 45 million users versus Box’s 8 million certainly means something. And even though Salesforce.com attracted a lot of users with Chatter, the company released Do.com in November, an application that reduces productivity management down to its most basic processes. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz competes in the same space with Asana, a task management platform that claims to inspire better communication with less effort.

The Power Really IS In the People

Social Business is all about the individual. Social business is essentially user-centric collaboration, which should focus on the conversation, and not the tools used by the enterprise. We earlier argued that there is no "social business," per se, given that a business is essentially social by nature. But does it really matter whether we call it social business, Enterprise 2.0, Social CRM or whatnot?

MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte have launched a study that will determine a "baseline of the social business landscape today and a framework to help [executives] realize value from their social business investments." By the time the study is finished, we would be able to prove our theories on whether social business entails revolution or an evolution. Majority of organizations are reported to be resistant to change, with as much as 75% of users still favoring tools like email instead of more collaborative means of exchanging information. As such, is there hope for social business at all? Perhaps our 15 ways to identify social business transformation can help businesses pinpoint their strengths and deficiencies in order to become more social as an enterprise.

In the end, we leave you with a thought as we enter a whole new year of social tools, media and standards. We can talk about software, features, collaborative applications, and such, but people are still the weakest link. The complexity of features and options can weigh down any social business effort. Simplicity is still key in social business success. People are empowered not by the complexity of the tools that they use, but rather by how simple and easy tasks are done with such tools. We do hope that simple tools with focus on people and conversations will be the trend in 2012.