How to Integrate Applications and Organizations with Social Collaboration

Community managers and management consultants who advocate for social collaboration are fond of saying that the technology is the easy part — and maybe that’s just because it’s not the part they’re responsible for. Technology alone won’t create a successful social platform, but failure to make the right technology choices will limit the chance of success. Suppose the collaboration network goes offline when employees need it the most — or through some glitch, displays confidential information? If something like that happens on your watch, it could be time to polish your resume.

In general, social collaboration isn’t a high-risk proposition compared with many other technologies in your portfolio. And if it fails, it usually fails quietly with a whimper and not a bang. Success, on the other hand, requires thoughtful implementation and becomes more probable if the technology team has thought through the possibilities as well as the risks.

Issues to be addressed include

  • Security: Decide how users will be authenticated and data will be protected. You also need to consider how far the platform can be trusted to prevent unauthorized access and what that implies for what information will or will not be entrusted to it.

  • Identity management: Consider how the enterprise can provide a single, consistent employee online identity across social collaboration and other systems.

  • Knowledge management: Think about how you can preserve the best content from social collaboration as organizational knowledge for the long term.

  • Architectural quality: Focus on how you can maximize the lasting value of your social collaboration platform, rather than merely addressing tactical requirements.

The integration opportunity

One way of making social collaboration more useful is by integrating the collaboration platform with other applications. For example, you can add comment streams to records displayed in a CRM or supply chain system, allowing employees to add informal comments or easily share a link to a specific record with any other user on the social network — say, a “Hey, this is something you ought to look at” type of message that may be a heads-up on a problem or an opportunity.

At a basic level, a social post can link to any web resource available at a distinct web address. On Facebook and Google+, and in many social collaboration solutions, when you include a link to a file or video in a post, the software creates a preview of a document or a video. Creating an appropriate preview for a business application record is a little more complex because (understandably) you can’t have the system display information that the user doesn’t have the right to access.

Using the emerging web protocols for authentication and authorization between applications and social profiles, you can generate static previews of application content and also achieve deeper integration between applications and social streams.

Regardless of whether you want to invest staff time in creating custom integrations, you ought to at least be aware of any integrations available, whether “out of the box” or through partnerships between vendors. If you choose Salesforce.com’s Chatter, for example, you get integration with Salesforce CRM as part of the package. Cloud software vendors are aggressively partnering up and offering proprietary app stores full of integrations with other products.

You may discover that at this point — particularly in the beginning — you don’t need to do anything particularly fancy. Just keep your options open for the long term.

The importance of making exceptions

Technical integration is only part of the story. Another reason for implementing social collaboration in an enterprise setting is organizational integration that helps employees work around gaps in business software and business processes. Loosely structured social collaboration can be a means of keeping the company moving when formal processes break down.

This is a form of exception handling, which is a way of making systems more resilient. Technologists may know that term from programming, where it is a technique for catching software glitches and handling them as gracefully as possible. In social collaboration, exception handling means giving people the tools to work around problems that standard company systems do not address.

Here’s an example. Say your official process is for the employee to fill out a form in the order management system and mark one of three check boxes. However, the worker runs into a situation that doesn’t fit choice A, B, or C. Faced with situation D (and whoever designed this system never thought of choice D), the worker marks C as the closest match but can add a social comment about the real status of the order, tagging the person who is next in the workflow with an @mention, which means they will get an alert.

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