Learning Software Vendor Saba Goes Social

Saba, a provider of training and online collaboration software to large companies and institutions, is adding an enterprise social-networking platform that will let employees share links and content, then go right into an online conference about them.

Saba Live, set to be unveiled Monday at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston, is designed to bring elements of the Facebook and Twitter experiences into work life, but with some features especially for enterprises. For one thing, it will be available both as on-demand software in the cloud and for deployment behind a firewall.

A growing number of employees are bringing social-networking skills and expectations into their jobs, industry analysts say, and some marquee names in IT want to help enterprises take advantage of that trend. Cisco Systems said last week that its Quad platform, which will let employees post status updates, form communities, post videos and engage in other actions such as instant messaging, will ship before November.

Saba is going after much the same opportunity from a different origin. The company has offered online training since its founding in 1997 and acquired Web-based conferencing company Centra about three years ago. Though the 625-person company in Redwood City, California, lacks Cisco's size, it has about 1,300 customers, including BMW, McDonald's and the U.S. Army. A key advantage of Saba Live will be its tight integration into Saba Centra, said Milind Pansare, a senior director of product marketing at Saba.

Users of Saba Live will be able to "follow" anyone within their organizations, viewing files, comments and other content that they post in the platform. At the same time, users will be able to select who can see each item they put up. Commenting and rating features will help to tease out the best ideas and the most common concerns in the organizations, such as product bug warnings. Saba Live will also include a search function for finding fellow employees who are knowledgeable or experienced in a certain area.

Employees will be able to form groups around particular tasks or interests, including "invisible" groups that non-members won't be able to see. That feature might be used to allow collaboration among executives involved in merger discussions, Pansare said.

Another feature makes Saba Live look a bit more like an enterprise tool and less like consumer social networking. Anyone with administrator credentials will be able to see all groups and even view a graphical representation of all the connections among employees based on whom they have as Saba Live contacts. Human resources executives, if they had such credentials, might use this capability in handling change management, Pansare said.

One of the key features of Saba Live is the flexibility to impose more or less corporate access and control over activity on the platform, said Nick Howe, vice president of learning and development at Hitachi Data Systems. The storage technology company in Santa Clara, California, has been testing a beta version of Saba Live for about three months. A subset of the company's 4,100 employees worldwide is now using it.

The system is helping Hitachi overcome barriers to getting work done, such as lack of communication among working groups and between internal staff and the company's sales channel partners, Howe said.

"The ability to contact people both across functions and across the extended enterprise is an untapped source of value," Howe said. For example, employees may want to find co-workers who have dealt with a problem they're facing. That employee's Saba Live posts or profile may reveal that experience, he said.

Howe believes the new software could be linked into other applications, such as CRM (customer relationship management), providing access to even more information about employees and resources. It has the same back end as Saba's learning platform, which includes Web services that can be used to pull in information from other systems, he said. Hitachi could populate the database fields for profile information with any type of data, including which customers each sales representative works with.

Social networking can become a powerful tool in enterprises, said Brad Shimmin, a collaboration analyst at Current Analysis. Applications such as content sharing, instant messaging and Web conferencing are still silos of potentially useful information within organizations, he said.

"Those are all gathering information, and there's really not a lot of unifying force to ... drive value from that," Shimmin said. "There is definitely a place for stuff like this in the enterprise," he said.

Fortunately, a long list of vendors, large and small, are preparing social networking for enterprises, he said. Among them, Saba may have the inside track in some cases because it already supplies learning or human-resources products. Shimmin sees Cisco's Quad appealing more to organizations that already use that company's videoconferencing and unified communications products.

Saba Live will be priced at a small premium to Saba Centra, which it will include, Pansare said. Saba Centra for online meetings starts at US$16 per month per session leader, with as many as 100 participants allowed in a meeting. The social-networking features will also be available in a larger-scale product, Saba Enterprise Collaboration Suite, which will include the capability to hold large, scheduled online classes and conferences and will cost more.

The products will be available on demand by the end of August and for internal deployments later in the year. At launch, the products will be available in as many as 14 languages, according to Saba.

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