Salesforce.com's Benioff Pushes 'social Enterprises'

Salesforce.com is ready to help customers turn their businesses into "social enterprises," CEO Marc Benioff said Thursday during the on-demand software vendor's Cloudforce event in Boston.

"This is the defining concept for everyone in our industry over the next few years," Benioff said. "Salesforce.com was born cloud, but we were reborn social."

Benioff cited recent statistics showing an uptick in the amount of time people are spending on social networks such as Facebook. It's come to a point where companies simply have to change the way they find and serve customers, he argued.

The old thinking used to be to pack corporate websites with every possible piece of information customers might need, and that would suffice, Benioff said. "It was a great pitch 20 years ago, but our industry doesn't stand still. [Social sites are] where your customers are spending time more and more each day."

Companies should follow a three-step process to become social enterprises, Benioff said. First, they must connect to public social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter. Next, they should create a private social network, and finally, their enterprise applications should be made social, he said.

Benioff positioned Salesforce.com as a company prepared to help customers accomplish this process through its array of technologies, which include the Force.com development platform, Chatter social networking tool, and more recent additions to the catalog, such as the acquisition of Radian6, maker of a system companies can use to monitor and track what customers are saying about their products and services on the Web.

Salesforce.com's message is apparently starting to resonate with many customers and partners. While a similar event held last year in Boston drew around 500 attendees, about 2,000 signed up for Thursday's installment, Benioff said.

Prudential Financial has deployed about 900 users on Salesforce.com, said Vice President Monica Oswald, who joined Benioff onstage briefly. The company sells to organizations that want to offer their employees retirement plans, she said.

Oswald sees "huge potential" for the collaborative aspects of Salesforce.com. "When an RFP [request for proposals] comes through the door, with the amount of information that has to come into that in a short period of time, it really requires collaboration."

Prudential Financial is also planning to roll out iPads to some of its users for use with Salesforce.com, she said. "For us, one of the challenges for the past year has been user adoption, especially [among] our field force. People don't like to dive back into their laptop." She expects the iPad user experience will change that.

Another Salesforce.com customer at the event discussed how the social enterprise concept can be applied not only to collaboration or marketing but also to day-to-day operations and security.

Networking vendor Enterasys is launching a software product called Isaac that can allow networked devices to securely communicate via social media, said Vala Afshar, chief customer officer, in an interview.

The system, which transforms machine language into natural language, is compatible with Salesforce.com's Chatter and other social services, allowing administrators to interact with devices they "follow" via a social network.

For example, a security system may indicate some kind of breach in a given physical area of a facility, he said. A surveillance camera in the area could then "tweet" out a snapshot of the space, giving remote employees the ability to check on things, he said.

Another use case might be CIOs from universities who would be able to shut off Internet access on student computers during exam periods, he said.

Two-factor authentication makes the process secure, according to Afshar.

Other customers, such as BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a nonprofit that runs after-school programs in Boston, New York and other U.S. cities, are getting something useful out of Salesforce.com and Force.com's core capabilities.

BELL moved to Salesforce.com a few years ago from a Lotus Domino-based system, and it is now crucial to the organization's operations, said Andy Manson, senior manager of systems, in an interview. "It's where a lot of our important data is."

A cloud-based system also works well for BELL's highly distributed workforce, since they can easily connect with it anywhere, he said.

While the social technologies Benioff focused on were of interest to Manson, the organization is not currently using them, but that could change down the road, he said.

Overall, a key part of Salesforce.com's long-term success will be the continued evolution of its core development platform, said analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research.

"Force.com is probably the most important part of Salesforce.com," Wang said. "A PaaS (platform-as-a-service) offering is going to be important for any customers who are used to custom development. The thing that's important to watch is what Salesforce does with Force.com over the next three to five years. The acquisitions are helping them get there."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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