Let the Collaboration Era Begin

Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you told them.

The rule of three, that’s the approach to its market outreach, and it has served them well over the last decade. Tuesday was part three of the Chatter cycle, in which the company culminated nearly a year of activity by announcing general availability of the product. Now they’ll start working on what to say at Dreamforce, something they’ll be talking about for 2011.

I can summarize the importance of the announcement, which was held at the San Jose Convention Center, in several points.

Iteration and Invention

First, the timeline of Chatter’s development is an important proof point for In only eight months, Salesforce went from concept to general availability. There may be other companies that have delivered a product in eight months or less, but the importance here is that Salesforce was not building a common database application, and they were not simply deploying something that was already built.

They were iterating and, in part, inventing a new style of application, so I expect there was a lot of iterative prototyping going on. That’s a bit more overhead and speaks well to the platform’s robustness.

I am surprised no one made a big deal about the platform during this announcement. Maybe it was a missed opportunity or maybe something had to be left unsaid or we’d still be there.

Bringing Collaboration to You

Second, while Salesforce had other social applications to cull ideas from, such as Facebook, Chatter is different because it is focused on the business organization as opposed to personal relationships.

Chatter enables a higher degree of collaboration than earlier purpose-built tools or earlier product categories like email. At lunch, press members asked CEO Marc Benioff if he had hard numbers, and we were told that numbers would be forthcoming.

That’s not surprising, given that Tuesday was the first day of general availability. But the company said it was eating its own dog food and that 6,000 companies were now Chatter-enabled, so I would expect some data soon. Caveat: Like they say about mileage, yours may vary.

The interesting thing to me and the real power of Chatter is that as a collaboration tool, it integrates — no, intercalates — itself with a business application. Rather than asking you to use a separate piece of software for the purpose of collaboration, Chatter is built into the application and thus brings collaboration to the user. The impact is clear. Collaboration can now be something that’s an accepted part of business practice rather than something you formally do with a separate tool at a prescribed time. The result should be the savings we asked about at lunch.

Sustainability and Mobility

I think collaboration has a strong role to play in sustainability — not for green reasons, but because better communication leads to better understanding, and if you can drive understanding through software it makes other forms of communication less necessary. Ever since humans domesticated the horse, the preferred mode of communication and collaboration — which literally means working together — was to be face-to-face or in the same room. With collaboration tools, it’s now possible to work together apart, if you follow my drift.

The benefit this provides to modern business is huge, of course. But it also means a renewed emphasis on mobility, which Salesforce was only too happy to promote. Salesforce has done a lot to ensure its applications — including Chatter — run on popular mobile platforms including BlackBerry devices, iPhones and now the iPad. Not content to simply run in a browser on the iPad, Benioff announced and showed an iPad-native application to be available later this year.

Of course, with mobility and collaboration, workers can be anywhere as long as they have Internet access, and they can participate and be relevant to any internal business process, and that will be increasingly important if and when we see fuel prices head north again.

So forgive me if this seems like it’s rambling, but if you’ve been here before, you know the themes. There are a lot of ideas to sum up. Chatter is released, it represents the start of the collaboration era, not because Salesforce was the first to bring a product to market but because it was very early to figure out how to embed it in real business processes. Collaboration is essential to making our business processes more sustainable, and that’s a theme we’ll be living with for the rest of our lives.

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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