A simple guide to integrating your social business platform

Recently, I sat with a group of experienced social business practitioners talking about integration. We were each describing how we wanted our vendor to integrate with systems and data we already had. And it was chaos. Or, more accurately, Babel.

Because we couldn’t understand each other. We were all using the word “integration” to mean very different things, describing it as both essential and to be avoided. As something requiring hardcore engineering and not requiring any.

Finally, though, we came up with a simple framework. A guide that can help you think through what you need - and what you want to avoid - as you pick a platform and integrate it into your firm.

Why is integration important?

The reason we were so focused on integration is because it’s the key to making your platform relevant.

As Sameer Patel writes:

“when it comes to different strands of collaboration, I lean towards the kind that calls for injecting the needed business context that makes collaboration purposeful...[where] meaningful events can be drawn in from an organizations BI, CRM and other Business Applications that provide the needed context that often invokes collaboration in the first place”

In short, you don’t buy a social business platform for blogging and tweeting. You buy it so you can change how people work. And to do that, you need to integrate it with the systems and data that people already use.

3 classes of integration

Yet many practitioners have found this kind of integration to be expensive and complicated while making upgrades difficult.

So is integration bad or good?

The key is to recognize that there are different kinds of integration and that they vary wildly. They differ in terms of work is required. The level of technical complexity. The importance in driving adoption and business value.

They each have their pros and cons, and you have to choose wisely.

Complex vendor integration

Each social platform vendor typically targets a small number of popular enterprise  systems for deep, complex integration. Systems like Sharepoint and Outlook or SAP and Salesforce. The goal is seamless data exchange and 2-way interaction (e.g., saving Outlook mail as a social platform discussion or presenting Outlook calendars in a community site).

Pro:  Choosing a platform that’s well-integrated to a widely used application in your firm can be the fastest way to make your social business platform relevant and useful. It’s extremely difficult work on the vendor side but relatively straightforward for the customer.

Con: It can be hard to evaluate the quality of a vendor integration without using it. Every vendor may integrate with Sharepoint, for example, but only some will let you search documents by content or save to Sharepoint directly. Those details can make a big difference.

Custom integration

If your vendor integrates with a handful of common applications, what do you do with the 100s or even 1000s of other applications in your firm?

You can still integrate them, but you’ll have to do most of the work yourself. Most social business platforms allow some low-level access (or APIs) to their functions and data. That’s what makes them platforms instead of mere applications.

Pro:  APIs make it possible to have your platform interact with almost any system you already have. That means your social business platform can be relevant to almost any workflow in your company.

Con: The work required is complicated and expensive. And each extra line of  code is a bit of burden you have to carry with you for the life of the platform.

Simple integration

Finally, there’s a broad but shallow class of integration that involves almost little or no code by the customer. This class includes simple ways to share any internal or external website. (Think of the little “t” or “f” you see on every web page for Twitter and Facebook.) Or simple hooks that let you navigate easily from your social platforms to other apps and back again.

Pro: These mechanisms are easy to implement and easy to use. And by making it convenient to share any website, the social business platform can be much more visible across the firm.

Con: This kind of integration won’t meaningfully change workflows. But convenience and ubiquity can dramatically improve adoption.

Your most important connection

The next time you’re thinking about integration, think carefully about the kind of integration you really need and want.

  1. Identify the handful of most important platforms at your firm and examine those vendor integrations thoroughly.
  2. Review the APIs but defer using them (and incurring a maintenance burden) until you have a successful, mature implementation of your social platform.
  3. Look for simple ways to integrate (website sharing and small hooks between applications) as these are easy ways to drive adoption.

And know that all of this will change in 6 months. With each release, the vendors can significantly change their integration strategy and capability

So, in addition to investigating the 3 classes of integration, your most important integration work might be with other customers.

Their experience in the field will be your best guide as to what works and what doesn’t. What to focus on and what to avoid. And that can be key to accelerating the changes you hope to bring about.