Jay Pullur – who holds a Masters degree in Computer Science from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur – is excited as the founder and CEO of Qontext, an enterprise social platform floated as a subsidiary of Pramati Technologies. Quite natural for Jay (http://bit.ly/F4TPullurJ) to be excited, I discover, during a brief interaction with him a few weeks ago, because Gartner recently recognised Qontext as ‘Cool Vendor 2011’ for its innovative social platform that connects with applications.

“Qontext (pronounced ‘context’) offers a simple, yet powerful solution to communicate, share, and collaborate from inside common business applications,” informs www.qontext.com. It also speaks of being a private social collaboration platform for your business, facilitating shared bookmarks, discussions, documents, blogs, wikis, photos, videos, polls, and more.

And, as for my interaction with Jay, we decide to continue the dialogue over the email, having set the context through the face-to-face meeting.

Excerpts from the interview.

Why do enterprises need social networking platforms?

Today, organisations are fast changing, and are globally distributed. This necessitates a commonly available platform within the enterprise that helps co-workers connect, communicate and collaborate effectively. Social networking platforms of the consumer world have been very successful in making everyone an active participant with discovery, new messaging tools and content sharing. It is only logical that enterprises should look for similar platforms for their internal use.

The public social networks are proven but enterprises are looking for equivalents that are closed circuit, private and fully secure. The tools and features should also be specially designed for corporate use and should serve the collaboration needs of the enterprise.

One specific example could be the integration with line-of-business applications such as ERP, SCM, and CRM to help users on the enterprise social platform to stay in touch with what is happening within the space.

Do you find that the buy-in for social platforms is tougher in the non-IT enterprises than in the IT enterprises?

Well, it appears that the IT (information technology) enterprises are more likely to be the first to adopt social platforms, but we find a broad awareness among non-IT enterprises and keenness to know how they should use them. Growth and innovation pressures are the key drivers here.

Besides that, the influx of young generation employees and global spread of business are making the need for new tools more urgent. How can we expect tomorrow’s organisations to be working on yesterday’s tools? Time has come for enterprises to look beyond emails as the sole all-purpose business tool.

Is there a maturity map of enterprise social networking that you would like to describe? Are there low-hanging fruits that should be pursued first?

The maturity model for enterprise social networking can be understood to be at three levels, based on how widespread the usage is and hence the impact it has on the organisation.

1) Engagement: The social platform serves as an employee engagement platform, replacing more conventional intranet or portals within the enterprise. Intranets have moved from static to dynamic with the backing of content management systems and portal software, but still need IT staff to keep them up-to-date and are not end-user managed. A social platform now serves as a ‘social intranet,’ where everyone is both a creator and consumer of content.

Such social intranet provides the low-hanging fruits for enterprises; this is easy to implement (needs no process changes), and improvement in internal communication is perceptible. It also builds a culture of sharing information in the organisation.

2) Collaboration: Social platform acts as the backbone of most collaboration and communication activities in the enterprise, taking the place of email-based document exchanges. A significant business benefit of this would be reduction in information silos (inboxes were always private and non-sharable), and email overload (through social design and information self-service).

3) Process improvement: At the highest level of usage, the social platform supplements enterprise applications with collaboration capabilities to facilitate people-driven parts of the process. The association of data and transaction records with communication and content items will help in decision-making, exception-handling, and work coordination.

Enterprise social platforms, such as Qontext, can be implemented within organisations that plan to use the same at any of the three levels above.

What can CIOs do to bridge the gap between the generations E and F, that is, the traditional email users and the Facebook generation?

Most organisations today are a mix of seniors who have grown working with emails and folders (say Gen-E), as well as youngsters who are extremely familiar with Facebook, Twitter and other social tools (call them Gen-F). While age is not an identifier, what distinguishes the two generations is what is very native and second nature to them.

CIOs need to choose an enterprise social platform that can serve as a bridge between the two generations for it to be very effective. It also has to support patterns of working of the Gen-E comfort zone and gradually make them familiar with the versatility of social tools.

The other, more complicated, issue is that of the gap in mindsets. The Gen-F expects a culture of openness, whereas Gen-E has come from more hierarchical functioning. Naturally, the leaders from Gen-E tend to be cautious, even while they understand that “the future of organisations is social.” This is where a little community management, laying out the ground rules (such as ‘acceptable use policy’) and active participation by managers/executives can ensure responsible behaviour and focused use of social platform for the good of the enterprise.

Does social networking in enterprises require a champion?

Typically, HR (human resources) and internal communication teams lead the rollout with an executive mandate and act as the initial champions. They help define goals and success metrics for a social platform rollout.

Essence of social is learning from others. Champions help the community take the right direction by seeding the right content, organising groups, which others can emulate. However, the role of a champion is not to police the community, as that would subdue participation.

Champions leverage the community by conducting socially-engaging activities such as polling for ideas to improve customer experience or conducting a quiz on awareness about the company. Their interest and activity would encourage and pull in the conservatives as well as sceptics over a period of time.

While identifying initial champions is needed, true champions emerge over a period of time. There are amongst us, people who are proactive, expressive and take the lead. Implementing the social platform provides the forum for them to act.

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