NewsGator,SharePoint,social computing for the enterprise
There was a time when all we heard about were social networking solutions lovingly termed "Facebook for the Enterprise". We don't hear that much anymore and there's a reason for it. Enterprises are getting smarter about how social computing solutions can be leveraged and they are much more resistant to the belief that Facebook-like participation is possible or even necessary.

CMSWire had the opportunity to speak with J.B. Holston, CEO and President of NewsGator, on the topic of enterprise social computing and how solutions like their RSS engine -- now called Social Sites Professional -- is changing the face of social computing for enterprises today.

Getting Social with RSS

Most know NewsGator for their RSS feed syndication services. They entered the enterprise space about two years ago with a server that provides content aggregation and distribution services for RSS and XML based feeds.

RSS engines are useful because they watch what everyone is consuming and push that content back out to other users who want the same information. It's a content rich view of both people's activities and the content they are consuming.

NewsGator's RSS engine can be deployed on its own providing services such as alerts, news management and message management . The engine has been deployed in Portal enhancement projects to add personal views or widgets. It can also be deployed as part of a solution the provides social computing capabilities for SharePoint.

What NewsGator started to see was that enterprises were using their RSS server as an application integration layer for social computing applications. One example NewsGator CEO J.B. Holston cited was Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed took the NewsGator RSS engine and integrated it with SharePoint building a solution they called Unity. They then added their own functionality for blogs, wikis and such. Their objective was to capture as much expertise from their constantly revolving employee base -- one quarter of their employees retire every year -- as possible.

Less Facebook, More Community

NewsGator spends a lot of time working with enterprises to understand their needs. What they have found is that the discussion no longer centers around terms like social networking, social computing or Facebook.

Instead talk has turned to more meaningful things like collaboration and communities. This has happened for a couple of reasons according to Holston. First, terms like Enterprise 2.0, social computing and social networking mean different things to different people. So you never know if you are really talking about the same thing when you bring these terms up.

Second, terms like these are more technology based and it's difficult to prove a business case on technology only. More and more enterprises want to focus on ROI, use cases and changes in behavior. This is what the conversation has become all about.

Enterprise are looking for advice and justification to use technologies like social networking to achieves very specific business objectives.

Social Sites for the Enterprise

About a year and a half ago, NewsGator was approached by Microsoft to build social computing capabilities that would integrate and extend the SharePoint platform. This became an opportunity for them to show even more how RSS can be a foundational element to social computing capabilities.

We wrote about these Social Sites back in June when they were announced. Social Sites include RSS syndication services plus about 50 webparts for SharePoint that enhance the SharePoint experience. Most of the lists and events in SharePoint are either RSS or XML enabled, so SharePoint content can also be easily aggregated.

Social Sites functionality includes AJAX interfaces, activity streams which include both internal and external activities (like Facebook and Twitter), social graphs, tagging and social bookmarking. All functionality is available to SharePoint out of the box when you have Social Sites.

Transforming the Culture Rapidly

Holston provided some examples of how and why social computing solutions are being used in the enterprise. In most cases there is a need to transform the culture rapidly -- although it can be for different reasons.

For example, social computing solutions enable employees to easily jump into curated communities that are related to their day to day activities. In one example, employees work solely within these communities to do all their work.

Learning Opportunities

By having employees complete all their work activities within communities, an enterprise can drive open collaboration as a primary way of working, getting rid of stove pipe organizational silos and reducing costs related to travel and video conferencing.

Holston says there is a view that communities democratize organizations and thus enable innovation and happier employees overall.

Younger Workforce Demands Social Computing

Another example of the need for greater collaboration and communities like Social Sites in the enterprise comes in the form of a younger workforce. Millennials often demand this type of social computing when they come into a company. 

The idea is not to shut off Facebook -- which was once the general thought -- but of how that type of technology can be deployed internally to grow business. Communities of course provide a rich set of tools that make it easier to collaborate, communicate and find expertise more easily than using email or other applications.

Measure of Attention Does Not Apply

According to Holston, it is not as important to look at the measure of attention for internal communities. It's not reasonable to expect that everyone will or needs to be on a community for a certain amount of time each day. Community use is much more variegated than that.

What is important is that they are there, populating its and that others are listening and finding the information they need to do their job.

To Have a Community or Not

Social computing vendors spend a lot of time inside organizations trying to understand how they leverage technologies like social networks to do their jobs better. Switching to communities from siloed, top-down organizational structures can be a challenge though, so implementing these solutions cannot be done lightly.

NewsGator provides an interesting tool to help you determine if you really need enterprise social computing and in what format. It's called SCORE: Social Computing Online Readiness Evaluation. It's composed of 25 questions and provides you feedback on whether you need social computing capabilities or not and what kind.

It's fairly certain you can take advantage of communities internally to build strong employee, customer and partner relationships. You just need to be very clear on what you are trying to achieve and how you will know you have acheived it.

Vendors like NewsGator seem ready to help you not just with the technical solution, but with the planning process as well.