Is “Social Enterprise Software” An Oxymoron?

I’ve been thinking about this since I saw the news on Monday morning that Jeff Dachis, one of the more successful NYC entrepreneurs in the first Internet wave, has partnered with Austin Ventures to "create an industry leading strategic consulting practice and an enterprise class Social Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) suite."

Jeff is a talented entrepreneur who has been working on the web for longer than most so it’s a challenge he is certainly up to. But I still wonder if enterprise software can really be "social". It’s something we have struggled with since we started creating our investment thesis for Union Square Ventures in 2003.

The term "social software" certainly means very different things to different people. I like the way Wikipedia defines it:

Social software is normally defined as a range of web-based software programs. The
programs allow users to interact and share data with other users. This computer-mediated communication has become very popular with social sites like MySpace and Facebook, media sites like Flickr and YouTube, and commercial sites like Amazon and eBay.
Many of these programs share characteristics like open APIs, service
oriented (customizable), and the ability to upload (data, media).

Six web services are mentioned in that paragraph and none of them are enterprise oriented services. That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean much. But when you think of terms like "open APIs", "customizable", and "upload data/media", the enterprise with its need for security and control doesn’t really come to mind.

Certainly there have been some social software successes in the enterprise. Wikis come to mind. We use a wiki from Jot (now Google) to run our business. Other wiki providers like PBWiki and Socialtext have also been successful. And one can make the argument that Salesforce.com is at its heart social software.

And then there are the examples of consumer facing social web apps like delicious, linkedin, AIM, and skype that have been brought into the enterprise because they just simply get the job done better than many enterprise class applications.

But to me, the heart of social software is the community of users that forms around the software/service. The community provides much of, if not all of, the value of social software. What would twitter or facebook be without users? Nothing. Same with blogger, flickr, friendfeed, etc, etc.

And most enterprises don’t want their employees to be active members of a community that it can’t control, monitor, and moderate. So the software that tends to be adopted by the enterprise is usually hobbled by the needs of the enterprise and cannot get that magical lift that an unbounded community provides.

So I will be watching what Jeff builds with interest. He’s always been at the cutting edge and I hope he will push the envelope in thinking about how the enterprise can successfully adopt social software. Because in my mind, the world of enterprise software has been awfully anti-social to date.

UPDATE: Here are some "related links" I found after posting this earlier this morning:

Where The F**ck Is The Enterprise 2.0 Market?

The Problem With Enterprise 2.0

Incrementalism and The New New Thing