Social networking software is at the center of technology hype, with MySpace, Bebo, Cyworld, Facebook, Piczo and many others attracting extraordinary valuations. Yet social networking is not just about friends and personal networks. Applying social networks in the enterprise is a sweet spot that has massive potential value. At the heart of the issue is how you tap the true potential of an organization, by bringing its most relevant expertise and resources to where they can be of most value. It’s worth reviewing the background to the space, given recent developments, and also because it remains a very high potential space, which will evolve substantially further over the next years.
In 2003 there were three major vendors of social networking platforms for the enterprise: Spoke, VisiblePath, and Contact Networks, while Interface Software integrated similar functionality into its CRM application InterAction (since bought by Lexis-Nexis). All three vendors showed great promise, which in all cases has yet to come to full fruition. The original intention of each was to suggest the best path through your contacts to the person you wanted to meet. VisiblePath and Contact Networks focused on applications entirely inside the enterprise, with the value proposition centered on being able to identify who within your organization could best introduce you to key contacts at prospective clients. At the time Boston Consulting Group also introduced an internal application that provided similar functionality, listing who inside the firm would be most likely to be able to introduce you to the people in the marketplace you wanted to meet. Spoke had a unique model at the time, providing both social networking applications inside the enterprise, as well as a public version of their application. If you signed up, Spoke indexed your Outlook, and established your “relationship strength” with all your contacts, based on a complex algorithm including how often you emailed each other, how quickly you responded to emails relative to those of others, use of attachments, and much more. As such, instead of providing just a “degrees of separation” between you and others, as with LinkedIn, it recommended the strongest path of relationships between you and the person you wanted to meet.
By providing both a public platform as well as an enterprise version, Spoke provided a far richer scope of connections for both groups to tap. Spoke was the gold sponsor for the Living Networks Forum I ran with Business Development Institute in New York in December 2003. To illustrate the ideas of the living networks, we set up Spoke on screens around the venue and got people to register on Spoke before the event. This meant that attendees could explore their network connections live at the event. For example two people who met at a coffee break could go to a screen and find out who they knew in common, and discover the overlap and potential of their personal networks. [Disclosure: while Spoke sponsored my 2003 event, I have had no contact with them for over two years.]
The companies took different paths from there. Spoke shifted to focus on sales groups in middle-tier enterprises. It was one of the first application vendors to provide integration to Salesforce.com, providing a CRM platform that gave rich information on prospects, including how best to access them. It has since moved on further to present itself primarily as a sales and lead generation database. VisiblePath focused on the big end of town, notably the investment banks and large professional services firms, getting a number of large-scale beta installations, not all of which proceeded. VisiblePath’s first round of funding was in February 2004, then raising $17 million in April 2006. VisiblePath has now come to attention, as next week at Web 2.0 it will launch a beta public version of its software, which indexes your Outlook to measure relationship strength. A review on Techcrunch earlier today analyzes the new service in some detail and raves about the potential value of the software. It surprises me that functionality which is now four years old in the marketplace is seen as new. However this also may show that the market is more ripe for the service than it was several years ago. Interestingly, while VisiblePath appears to still be offering its enterprise social networking platform, it is now presenting itself as primarily in the public software space, no doubt looking to compete more with LinkedIn than Spoke. There are a number of reasons why enterprise social networking platforms have not taken off as much as originally expected, though I am sure that these applications will gradually become part of the way business is done in large corporations. Tacit Software is a vendor that has combined expertise location with social networks, and in its new incarnation is experiencing good succcess. I do think that the need to index Outlook is a big barrier for adoption, which will limit VisiblePath’s attempt to emulate Spoke’s earlier endeavors. The real potential, as alluded to by VisiblePath’s CEO Antony Brydon when we had lunch a few years back, is where social networks are going, including business reputation networks, and providing whole-of-web social network functionality. This new initiative is certainly a shift of business model by VisiblePath in response to market uptake to its original offering, but also positioning for a future of pervasive social network applications.