Fitting Chatter Into the Right Box

One of the frustrations of new technology is that quite often even the vendor lacks a coherent understanding of an innovation’s business context.

Too often we receive a new product category and the best we can say about it is that it is “cool.” This should not be surprising because that’s what early adopters are for. The early adopters see something cool and have the time, interest and money to investigate the new thing, and in so doing they discover or establish the context.

We see this all the time, and I saw this happen personally many years ago when sales force automation (SFA) was a new idea. I don’t want to take credit for anything, but this story illustrates my point. I was working for a small database company in the late 1980s, and our company had introduced a set of application development tools to work with its database. At that time, I was the top salesperson, and I worked with a notebook (Not a PC. You know — paper!) and a spreadsheet to keep track of deals and details.

One day, I asked my sales engineer to build me a database for my customer list. I asked that the application have the ability to capture my notes along with the usual demographic information, and just for fun, it needed to have the ability to remind me when to contact the customer again. Long story short, the application was built quickly, a testament to the SE’s ability and our tools’ prowess. However, when I showed it to my manager, he was aghast. I was told not to use the application — that’s what spreadsheets were for, after all. I was also instructed not to waste my SE’s time like that again.

Context Needed

Times change, but what I experienced first-hand was the lack of context for this crude lead-tracking application. There were few, if any, similar examples like it, and my manager was not in a frame of mind to investigate how the application could help generate revenue. It was cool by my standards, but ironically, though we were in the database business, we didn’t want to be innovators at the application level within our company.

When I look at the evident excitement surrounding’s Chatter application, I see similarities. Certainly there are hundreds of companies happy to play the early adopter role, and they are proving the efficacy of Chatter. But Salesforce has been vague about Chatter’s context within the enterprise. For sure, they’re doing a good job of illustrating how the product works, and Salesforce provides good use scenarios. Nonetheless, Chatter is revolutionary in how it potentially reorganizes the internals of an enterprise, and for that reason, more context is in order.

As luck would have it, I was recently tooling through The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki and found what I would call context for Chatter in chapter 10. According to Surowiecki, information in an enterprise is often doled out hierarchically form the top down, because command and control is still the dominant business model. But the people who are closest to the work — and often that means closest to the customer — are the best users of information. It’s a free market concept. For decades, business gurus have made a big deal about decentralization and pushing decision-making authority down levels within an organization. But decisions require information, and often information is imperfect.

Breaking Down the Hierarchy

What I like about Chatter is that it does not set up a high-speed way for management to provide information to the worker, because too much of a good thing is too much. Instead, it treats information as a commodity within the organization. Information sharing is still not perfect, but Chatter accounts for this by making it possible for managers to subscribe to information flows and to step in to lend a hand when that’s what’s needed.

By this standard, Chatter is a disruptive innovation in the enterprise because it enables a breakdown of hierarchy — which has been discussed and endorsed for years but which has been unachievable for lack of appropriate technology and a business model. The two must go together, the business model is in some ways more important than the technology, and it is precisely what’s lacking when we discuss Chatter’s context.

Chatter will most likely be successful because it has a solid early-adopter cohort, and the word will spread from it. is a software company and may not yet feel comfortable taking on the mantle of business advisor, but as the company grows out from its front-office application roots to become more of a general-purpose technology-enabling concern, the company will need to accept this role and exploit it.

Perhaps this will be the subject of Marc Benioff’s next book. Maybe that book is already in process.

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 working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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