In my role at 451 Research I have had the pleasure of looking at our markets afresh, and in particular looking at what direction the emerging Social Enterprise is really going in. It’s a market that is as full of buzzwords as it is hype, with money and attention focused on this largely cloud-based world of startups and promises. But beneath the hype there are some hard truths that need to be recognized if the promise of the social enterprise is really to deliver. The biggest of which is that culture will always win out.

The idea of enterprise collaboration in itself is far from new, with roots going back to the knowledge management (KM) craze of the dot-com era. Indeed, the stated business objectives of enterprise collaboration today are near perfectly interchangeable with those of KM providers in the late '90s.

What has changed is that the technology today is more able to deliver results in real time, and that in general, workforces are becoming more geographically dispersed, yet increasingly connected via mobile networks.

Another driver for this renewal of interest has been the growth of remote working practices and, hand-in-hand with that, BYOD (bring your own device), with workers regularly expecting to be able to access work-related content and applications on their own devices.

It's long been the holy grail of mobile computing to deliver anything, anytime on any device, but it's only recently that this has gotten close to a reality. That it hasn't been fully realized yet is due mainly to concerns over security and the very real issues of integrating multiple silos, business processes and applications, and subsequently delivering both push and pull access to a range of devices. These factors alone are combining to create a voracious appetite for enterprise collaboration technology.

Different Solutions, Different Capabilities

This market sector brings together a number of relatively diverse technical and business functions under the one banner. A working definition for enterprise collaboration and social enterprise technology would run along the following lines: Software that allows employees to work collaboratively regardless of physical location, while also gaining valuable insights into the activities, knowledge and skills of coworkers.

To deliver on such a promise, vendors may provide functions such as expertise location, activity stream monitoring, online conference functionality, file sharing and workgroup management. Unsurprisingly then, the vendors that play in this emerging market are themselves quite diverse in nature, and typically major in some areas, and less so or not at all in others.

For example, Yammer (soon to be Microsoft) provides online notice board micro-blogging, Moxie provides the functionality to build team workspaces, whereas Oracle attempts to provide a full suite of integrated services. So a feature and function comparison of vendors' products in this space may provide less value than simply trying to understand the overall service that each seeks to provide, or the business challenge it hopes to meet.

Tools for the Collaboratively Indifferent

But culture always wins out, and it has been in trying to change working cultures that previous attempts at building social and collaborative enterprises have failed miserably. Asking folk to manually tag and rate information, to store information that may be of interest to others in shared folders, to attend and participate in online forums often falls flat. An enthusiastic few go for it with passion, but the majority just ignore the requests.

For sure there are some organizations that already have a collaborative vim and vigor about them, some industries that are used to working in teams that will embrace these functions. Yet there are many others that will not.

It is in this latter majority that we are seeing the long awaited emergence of enterprise intelligence layers that draw upon artificial intelligence, search indexing, text and semantic analysis, rules and good old algorithms to automate the classification and understanding of information. Enterprise Intelligence that is smart enough to make decisions to push highly targeted information to workers and systems, to create intelligent links between disparate information items that enables information to better managed and leveraged.

Much of this is technology that has been around for a while, but it is only now starting to emerge, or rather be submerged, in the backend of enterprise collaboration systems. It’s still early days but both large and small software companies from the likes of Oracle to Huddle, are committing to this path of removing the human classification process, automating it via enterprise intelligence technologies.

Culture will always win out, and for those that like to actively collaborate, the systems are there and ready to use, for the rest of us who are focused more on our own needs in the here and now, the technologies to make those social business connections on our behalf are also starting to become available. In summary, beyond the hype and the bluster there is hope. Savvy suppliers have for once started to observe actual user behavior and create collaboration systems that recognize reality, and don’t attempt to impose a utopian working and sharing culture on a disinterested workforce.