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By now it may be one of the most common experiences on the Net. You're on a Web page with a photo of yourself, next to a blank box awaiting the latest update on your activities. Strung below are comments and observations from people you know, near and far.
Facebook or Twitter? Not necessarily. It could be Chatter, a new application being rolled out to customers by San Francisco-based Salesforce.com, a fast-growing Bloomberg Businessweek 50 company whose stock has more than doubled over the last year, to about $110 per share. Salesforce.com provides customer-relationship management and other business software as a service over the Internet. Instead of asking "What's on your mind?" or "What's happening?" Chatter poses the question: "What are you working on?"
The company calls Chatter, which like all Salesforce.com software requires only a browser and an Internet connection to access, a "real-time collaboration cloud." Users establish profiles and generate status updates—which might be questions, bits of information or relevant hyperlinks—that are aggregated and broadcast to co-workers in their personal network, whose own comments and updates are then incorporated into a running feed. Workers can follow each other, their customers, and deals in the manner they would on Twitter. Employees can follow colleagues from around the whole company, not just within their own workgroups, which helps knock down some of the silo mentality common in corporations. And profiles can be searched for needed skill sets. (Who knew Wendy in legal was fluent in Portuguese?) A new version due in October will be able to make suggestions about people and accounts users should follow based on their jobs and past activities.
Chatter "makes our core product better," says Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com's voluble chairman and chief executive, who adds that e-mail traffic at Salesforce has fallen 40 percent since his employees started Chattering in June. "You can see which employees are adding value to your business." He says he uses the software to keep an eye on big deals and see which of his support reps are best at squelching problems.
Online social networks have been in the workplace since their beginnings—but more as nuisances than tools to be harnessed. In addition to their productivity-choking ability to suck up employees' time and attention, sites such as Facebook and Twitter are, by the virtue of their very open nature, corporate-security nightmares.
Salesforce.com co-founder Parker Harris, the company's executive vice-president for technology, says Chatter is an attempt to capture and disseminate "watercooler conversation" while at the same time recognizing that in a corporate environment, "wide-open is not necessarily a good thing." Chatter has built-in business-appropriate limitations, such as the ability for management to control access to sensitive records or documents.
The company started rolling out the Chatter application to its 82,000 global customers in June as part of their existing Salesforce service. According to Salesforce.com, as of Aug. 19 about 20,000 companies were using Chatter. Among them are computermaker Dell (DELL), which has deployed it to some 20,000 workers. Dell says its sales managers use Chatter to track deals. Another customer, advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, says its employees tend to gravitate toward Chatter first thing in the morning and spend much of their day with it as a way to stay plugged in to the organization.
For anyone who pays the usual $65- to $125-a-month fee for Salesforce.com, Chatter is included at no extra charge. All other users pay $15 a month. The company won't disclose how much added revenue that comes to. Still, Benioff is pleased with the results so far: On an August conference call with analysts, he called Chatter the company's "most successful software release, ever."
The bottom line: Salesforce.com says its new social-networking feature may help customers break down corporate silos.