Enterprise social networking software, which offers social media capabilities adapted for workplace collaboration like employee profiles, activity streams, microblogging and document sharing, has evolved from a "nice to have" to a "should have" status in enterprises.
Picking up on that shift, Microsoft plunked down more than $1 billion last summer to buy Yammer - at the time a leading independent provider of ESN software - in order to boost ESN capabilities primarily in its collaboration server SharePoint and also in other products like Office, Lync, Outlook and Dynamics.
While Microsoft has been busy working on integrating Yammer with SharePoint behind the scenes, it's now clear that the effort is complex and that a fusion of the products will take at least two more years to complete.
For now, the integration deliverables will be modest. Microsoft said in March that Office 365 customers will get the option this summer to replace SharePoint Online's activity-stream component with Yammer's activity stream.
In this basic integration, when users click on the Yammer link, it'll open up a new browser window and ask them to sign into Yammer. In the same timeframe, Microsoft will deliver a Yammer application that will let users embed a Yammer group feed into a SharePoint site, both with SharePoint Online and with SharePoint 2013 servers installed on customer premises. Microsoft will also make it possible for customers to replace the newsfeed in SharePoint 2013 servers installed on premise.
Later in the year, the integration will deepen with a single sign-on and the inclusion of Yammer in the Office 365 interface. Yammer will also gain integration with Office Web Apps, the browser-based version of the Office productivity suite, before the end of the year.
In 2014, Office 365 customers can expect integration between Yammer and other Office 365 components beyond SharePoint, such as Lync and Exchange. Yammer is also being integrated with Microsoft Dynamics enterprise software.
SharePoint, first launched about a dozen years ago, has been the 800-pound gorilla of collaboration servers for a long time, but it has struggled to keep up on the enterprise social networking front.
Microsoft increased SharePoint's native ESN features in the 2010 and in the latest 2013 version of the product, but as its acquisition of Yammer shows, even the company recognises it needs to do more.
"The issue with SharePoint has been that enterprise social moves very fast and SharePoint doesn't, because it's a big, complex product" that does many other things, says Forrester Research analyst Rob Koplowitz.
In fact, SharePoint's ESN limitations opened up the opportunities for other vendors to come out with products that augment or replace SharePoint for ESN.
"The interesting thing right now is that we're starting to see a maturing market with some emerging leaders," Koplowitz says.
So what should be the strategy for CIOs regarding SharePoint, Yammer and competing ESN tools at this market's crossroads? Below we offer analysis criteria and suggestions.
Not all ESN vendors are created equal
Companies that make ESN software fall into three categories: collaboration platform companies, business application vendors and specialty players.
Microsoft falls into the first category, along with others like IBM with its Connections product and Cisco with WebEx Social. These are big software vendors that have other collaboration and communication products.
Then there are enterprise application vendors that have added ESN complements for their core ERP and CRM suites. That's the case of Salesforce.com with its Chatter product and of SAP with Jam. Middleware vendor Tibco has an ESN product called Tibbr.
Finally, there are the smaller niche players like Jive Software, Socialtext and NewsGator which focus solely or primarily on their own ESN products.
Thus, a criteria for CIOs, especially those whose organisations aren't yet using ESN software, could be to look at the vendors they're already doing business with.
"See what vendors you have existing relationships with and may prefer to work with," says Larry Cannell, a Gartner analyst.
There are pros and cons that are evident on the surface for vendors in each category. The vendors in the first two categories are larger, with more resources, and thus can be assumed to be more stable. They can also offer the promise of broader software stacks that are natively integrated with their ESN components.
However, they will inevitably approach ESN from their own perspectives, and it's not clear to Cannell which one will emerge as the most appropriate one.