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Chatter's Arrival Is 2010's Signal Event

By Denis Pombriant
Dec 1, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Well, that was interesting. 2010, that is. When I started doing a year-in-review column, there was an emphasis on quantifying accomplishments -- tangible things that somehow added up to the year in review. But with the economy still lurching and not many major accomplishments, I thought I'd try something different this year.

Chatter's Arrival Is 2010's Signal Event

Rather than attempting to identify all or most of the events of 2010, I am focusing only on what I think is the most important thing to happen in the front office this year. There's a lot of risk in doing this because it's bound to be controversial. My idea of what was important, or most important, might not be yours, and our criteria will certainly be different.

This happens all the time; for instance, Adolph Hitler was Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1938, and a year later, well, you know. So with a gulp, let me say what I think was the most important thing to happen in the front office space in 2010 and then explain why.

The most notable event to happen in 2010, in my humble opinion, was the release of Chatter by Salesforce.com. Releasing this product did several things. First, it created -- or certainly solidified -- a new market niche for collaboration technology. Second, it was another proof point for the robustness of the cloud computing model and Force.com in particular. And finally, it domesticated social media.

Let's take them in order.

On Collaboration

The idea of collaboration has been around for a long time. Seminal thinkers like Erik von Hippel have been researching, thinking about, writing and talking about it for a long time. In Democratizing Innovation for instance, von Hippel lays out significant evidence that people in business value being asked to contribute ideas, and they appreciate being heard. But the analog ways of collecting input do not scale very well, and early social media, while a step forward, have too many idiosyncrasies to be truly useful in a business setting.

One of my new favorite statistics is that 84 percent of the people on Facebook are women. That's fine, but it doesn't provide the kind of balanced, scientifically useful population you need for research into many situations. Chatter avoids many of the pitfalls seen in other social media in part because it is aimed at a population that is expected to use it as a condition of employment, and that appears to be working well from the stories I've seen. The result is a proof point for social technology in the enterprise, something that was lacking.

On Cloud Computing

Like all of Salesforce's products, Chatter shares a common heritage -- it was built in Force.com. Importantly, it was a new kind of application, designed with plenty of end-user input. It was also delivered on schedule. I don't know how many people toiled late into the night for months on end, nor do I know what the effort cost, but I do know the result.

From this vantage point, a good-sized IT project got done and delivered to specification as planned. I think we overlook this aspect of Chatter, but it is a strong endorsement for cloud computing and the Force.com approach to building applications.

On Domestication

Yes, Chatter was the product that showed how an organization can leverage social ideas, methods and technologies to achieve a business end. Prior to Chatter, there was a good deal of trial and error and anecdotal evidence on a more or less one-off basis of an organization doing something useful with social media.

Chatter swept through the Salesforce customer base with impressive speed. About 60,000 customer organizations have adopted it in some degree, and large implementations like Dell with over 30,000 users are not uncommon. Those kinds of numbers suggest to me that we can now put out the fire and call in the dogs.

An Observation

It's not over. Chatter showed one way to derive business value from social technology, but it is not the only application that will do so. It focuses on organizational productivity, but there are many other areas and business processes that can be improved by applying social technology. But it is a start.

Chatter, at least pre-Dreamforce Chatter, is aimed at the enterprise's internal workings; there is no Chatter for customer relations (B2C Chatter?) or between enterprises (B2B Chatter?) yet. That will likely change, though we don't know when.

Nonetheless, Chatter's deployment and rapid adoption in the last year place it in a unique place in front-office computing and enterprise software generally.

So Chatter takes the prize in my book, but I hope many of you will have ideas of your own. I'd like to know what they are. If the response is significant, I'll write another column on your ideas.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.

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