Salesforce's 'social enterprise' blueprint

The company's transition from a dot com baby to a cloud giant holds clues for other businesses tackling evolving social and mobile trends.

Cloud computing giant Salesforce's recently concluded Dreamforce conference illustrated many of the challenges facing businesses struggling with the mobile workplace, social media and Big Data.

In many ways Salesforce.com is the perfect example of the tech industry’s fortunes. Founded in 1999 during the heady days of the first dot com boom, Salesforce’s fortunes have tracked the difficulties and successes of what we now know as cloud computing.

Today the company is on a roll as shown by the 90,000 customers and partners attending the conference where founder and CEO Marc Benioff announced a range of products built around the two dozen acquisitions made in the last five years.

Salesforce’s challenges in this market are similar to those faced by businesses in most industries and the company’s product launches and acquisitions gives some clues on how other organisations can deal with these social and mobile workplace trends.

Much of Benioff’s vision is around moving Salesforce away from being just a CRM – Customer Relationship Management – service to being at the forefront of the “social enterprise”.

To this end Salesforce has been a big buyer of social media related companies with notable purchases being online monitoring service Radian6 and Facebook advertising platform Buddy Media which on its own is responsible for a tenth of all advertising on the social media service.

Facebook itself itself featured in Benioff’s conference opening when discussing Salesforce’s HR service, Work.com, which evolved out of the company’s purchase of ‘human capital’ service Rypple which sought to replace opaque top down performance reviews with more transparent rewards and reviews from co-workers.

The key part of Salesforce’s thrust into social media is their Chatter collaboration platform where the company showcased applications as ski manufacturers, banks, airlines and even the makers of the engines on the planes.

While social is Benioff’s focus the real battle is on the devices as business moves from staff being tied to workstations to one where mobile devices are the norm. One of weaknesses for cloud services like Salesforce is that most cloud services are tied to the desktop and don’t translate well to mobile devices.

A few weeks ago Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckeberg said that focusing on the HTML5 web standard was his company’s biggest mistake in moving onto mobile devices, Benioff thinks otherwise and has ‘doubled down’ on Salesforce’s focus on web based services.

While the web is the focus, Salesforce have still had to cater for their customers’ demands for apps on their smartphones and tablets so they have also announced the Touch application for Apple iOS systems.

Salesforce’s conflict between developing specific apps for iOS devices and keeping the service compatible with open web standards is part of the tension in the online marketplace as the various online empires like Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook try to lock users into their “walled gardens”.

Establishing their own walled garden so they aren’t held hostage by other web fiefdoms is the great challenge for Salesforce and Benioff. It may even be an alliance, or perhaps something stronger, with Facebook might be this quest for independence.

That quest for independence is something all businesses need to be considering with their technology choices, particularly those in the cloud.

Many of the case studies shown off at Dreamforce illustrated the risks of being locked into one company’s technology and having flexibility and open data sharing between services is going to be a competitive advantage over the next decade.

Salesforce itself is a good example of how the challenges of Big Data, social media and the mobile web can be answered by cloud computing. Marc Benioff’s success or otherwise in diversifying across business functions will define how we use these technologies in our organisations.

Paul Wallbank travelled to Dreamforce 2012 courtesy of Salesforce

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