Many people have pointed out the similarities between the messaging in email and enterprise social network sites. However, the synergy between search and enterprise social network sites is discussed far less. As enterprise social network sites integrate with more business applications, the similarities between enterprise social network sites and search will become evident from two perspectives. First, from the point of view of how workers will expect to interact with business application information via a social network site. Second, there are significant similarities between how business application information is aggregated into a social network site with how the same is done with search-based applications.
I’ve previously blogged about how enterprise frictionless sharing should become "the norm and what architects aspire to provide". In other words, information about what is happening in business applications should be surfaced within an enterprise social network site. For example, let’s assume that several business applications are integrated with an enterprise social network site. Entities within these applications (e.g., a customer in a CRM system, a project workspace, or a product in a release management system) are shadowed with non-person entities in the social network site. These entities should even have their own profile page, similar to a Facebook fan page except you would follow a customer’s CRM record instead of being a fan of Lady Gaga.
As changes occur to these business application entities (e.g., a customer makes an inquiry, a document is uploaded, or a product is released to pre-production) anyone following the shadowed social network entity are notified of these changes in their activity stream. For example, if I follow customer "ABC" within the social network site, then events involving the customer record "ABC" in the CRM system (e.g., a new opportunity for customer “ABC” is created) generate notifications within my activity stream.
Notifications can also spark conversations. For example, a notification from a CRM system could provide the opportunity for someone to offer additional information (e.g., "Be careful with this customer, I’ve had problems with them"). Or the conversation could be used to resolve an exception flagged by the business application (e.g., "I’m trying to determine why this release was kicked back to testing"). The notification and resulting interaction happening within the activity stream are compelling reasons for implementing these types of integrations.
In addition, these integrations offer longer-term opportunities to build the enterprise social network into a powerful knowledgebase that consolidates information across business applications; much like the role enterprise search can play today.
Think about how our previous example (several applications integrated with an enterprise social network site) will shape worker expectations for finding information. The social network site’s search function should naturally include results from these notifications. While workers may want to search for older events (before the business application was integrated with the social network site), it could be a matter of time before the social network site’s search results contain much of the workers’ needed information. The richness of the information contained within the notifications (e.g., changes to a customer record) and the descriptions reflected in the entity profiles (e.g., a customer’s demographic or contact information) will impact the effectiveness of these social network-based searches.
As multiple business applications become integrated with a social network site, a significant challenge will be the normalization of business entities across applications. For example, aligning a customer record in a CRM system with the same customer record in a warranty claims system. Without this alignment, cross-business application relationships cannot be captured within the site’s social graph and workers participating in the network will see duplicate customer profiles (one from the CRM system, the other from the warranty claims system).
Another important question regarding these types of integrations will be the role of security semantics managed by the originating business applications. Should the social network site enforce the same access control specified in the business application or should a different set of controls apply to this information? In other words, should revoking a worker’s view permission to a customer’s record automatically revoke this access to the entity’s shadowed social network profile? Replicating a single business application’s security semantics with the social network site may difficult. A more daunting task will be normalizing security semantics across multiple business applications feeding the social network site. As a result, compromises may be required, such as creating a new set of access controls within the social network site.
Many of these information aggregation challenges are not new. They share similar qualities to those being addressed by today’s enterprise search solutions (as well as data warehouse applications). Now, I am not talking about the simple keyword search, but rather search-based applications that aggregate information across multiple sources of business information. These applications often offer rich navigation methods for exploring the information and finding previously unseen relationships.
In short, I expect many of the disciplines involved in search-based application integration (as well as those involved in other types of data aggregation, such as ETL and data warehousing) will be important when striving to integrate business applications with enterprise social network sites.
Subscribers to Gartner for Technical Professionals (GTP) can read more about the similarities between search and enterprise social network sites in the report “The Post-2.0 Era: Social in the Context of My Work,” where the concept of a Social Online Workplace is introduced. If your company is a Gartner customer you may already be able to access this and other GTP reports. To see if you do, contact your company’s Gartner Membership Administrator. If you do not know who that is ask Gartner.