Getting Social in the Enterprise with ESME

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 2008-09-29

Although some companies are using consumer social networking and microblogging apps like Twitter and Facebook to drive deeper connections among employees, experts, and customers, others are exploring ways to create similar tools that are better able to meet enterprise needs. Case in point: ESME.

A few months ago, a handful of SAP Mentors were enjoying a casual conversation about application development on Plurk, a social networking site. The Mentors are in the company's Community Network and are usually people who are prolific contributors to technical topics, but also have special expertise in defined areas, according to one Mentor, Dennis Howlett.

The chat turned into an idea that soon became a full-blown social networking project, called ESME (short for Enterprise Social Messaging Experiment), with an alpha release about 3 months later.

"ESME is interesting because of the background of the people building it," says Red Monk analyst Michael Cote. "Primarily, there are a lot of enterprise software -- specifically, ERP -- people involved in the project."

Their approach, notes Cote, was not to figure out how to fit a Twitter-like service into the enterprise, but how to build up and extend a microblogging system that fits enterprise needs. An online demo video displays its attributes, including user groups and tag clouds.

Cote adds, "Also, based on this experience with dealing with such business systems, you could expect to see more integrations with business back-ends to more tightly integrate into existing business setups."

Although ESME isn't positioned against Twitter, it does take some of the concepts behind that product, such as conversational flow and the idea of "followers," Howlett says.

"ESME was built with a clearly differentiated model in mind that address the problem of discovering people who can help in problem-solving situations inside the enterprise network," he states. "We envisage this as primarily behind the firewall, but could cross corporate boundaries into the extended business value chain. You can imagine it as the alternative to the 'go-to guy/gal' when problems arise among knowledge workers."

The Mentors and others involved in the project wanted to work directly with SAP technology for several reasons, he adds. First, it gives access to a potential audience of 12 million users across nearly 47,000 companies. Secondly, SAP's security model could be leveraged, which makes ESME fundamentally different to other social networking tools, Howlett notes.

However, the tool isn't exclusively tied to SAP technology, and can be used in other environments, since it's currently open source.

Microblogging, Macro Effect
The ability for those within an enterprise to collaborate has always been crucial, whether that communication is done over the cubicle wall or through email.

But with a more distributed workforce, and a greater need for bringing together employees with outside consultants, creating systems like ESME could be particularly compelling going forward.

"The thing to watch is how these social networking tools help connect people with their peers and experts," says Forrester senior analyst Gil Yehuda. "What Web 2.0 vendors are finding is that content management is less important, because information gets stale quickly. But the connection between people stays strong."

Microblogging efforts that are inside company walls, such as ESME, could have a better chance of success than utilizing online tools that cause employees to venture outside the firewall in order to collaborate, Yehuda adds.

"If employees are establishing their own social network externally, that's actually a risk," he says. "It may not be a bad thing, but it's risky, and if companies don't give their employees the ability to network internally, that's just what they'll do."

Companies that haven't yet explored enterprise social networking would do well to look at initiatives like ESME, IBM's Beehive, and Oracle's OraTweet to understand how employees can link together, and to outside vendors and clients as well.

"Smart business managers are seeing that they can have an internal Twitter conversation, and they're talking to IT development folks to make it happen," says Michael Gartenberg, Vice President at Jupitermedia. "This direction is the kind of rich enterprise technology that we've dreamed about, where Web 2.0 tools can be adapted to the business."

In addition to linking peers and clients, applications like ESME help to streamline operations by speeding up problem solving, an issue that consumes about 80 percent of knowledge workers' time, Howlett says.