For many IT managers the word “social” is associated with frivolity, but Peter Coffee, VP and Head of Platform Research at Salesforce.com believes that organisations should not think in terms of social versus serious, or social versus professional, but in terms of social versus anti-social.

For some time, Salesforce.com has been pushing the idea of the “social enterprise,” and the company's CEO Marc Benioff has said that this will become a defining concept for the industry over the next few years. He pointed to the amount of time people spend on social networks such as Facebook, claiming that companies have to change the way they find and serve customers.

Coffee explained that social enterprise means taking the things that make people's behaviour attractively social, and then automating, governing, auditing and scaling those behaviours, so that they can be done at enterprise scale.

“It's actually not that complicated if you don't let the connotations of the word 'social' get in the way of understanding why enterprises would want to have a social rather than an anti-social set of behaviours,” he said.

Coffee said that 'anti-social' implies a fixed response independent of context, a repeated response independent of changing interests, or a procedure of schedule-driven behaviour instead of event-driven behaviour.

People who are sensitive to context – and therefore social – will adapt their responses, and provide information that they have reason to believe would interest the person in question, based on their past behaviour.

“Algorithms can do that too,” he said. “Algorithms do something even cooler which is that they can do that at scale, consistently, reproducibly, and with the possibility of continuous improvement.”

Around two years ago, Salesforce.com launched an enterprise social network called Chatter, which has become the collaboration platform underpinning many of the company's cloud software products.

At launch, Chatter could only be deployed within a single email domain. However, once people understood that there could be such a thing as a private social network, the company started giving them the option to make specific exceptions to that privacy within Customer Groups.

“Our customers and our customers' customers all tell us that, once you've got a customer group defined, what used to be a very arms length message-in-a-bottle kind of interaction with your customers is now more like having a shared workroom where everybody gets together for coffee in the morning,” said Coffee.

“The fluidity and the interaction of those conversations in that customer group bring an intimacy and a level of productivity to the relationship between a provider and a customer that are really quite game-changing.”

Collaboration in the cloud

Salesforce.com is by no means the only technology vendor to be using techniques borrowed from social networks to drive productivity in the workplace. For example, Huddle, which recently announced a $24 million (£15.3m) Series C round of funding, offers a collaboration platform that aims to make enterprise content management market more social and accessible.

Microsoft's efforts with SharePoint and Office 365 are also focused on enabling people to work more collaboratively, offering “social computing” features such as real-time communication and document sharing.

Coffee said that, while a lot of technology vendors are now espousing the social enterprise model, it can be difficult to fulfil unless they begin from a multi-tenant environment with metadata-based customisation, as Salesforce.com did.

He also said that, when a company sells on-premise software and also introduces a cloud-based offering, they can end up with an internal conflict between making the cloud offering fully functional and preserving their existing profit base.

“What usually happens is that the cloud offering becomes a value-add layer to the on-premise offering but doesn't really ever get the opportunity to try its wings and do everything that it could do,” he said.

Furthermore, Coffee suggested that the tendency of traditional application service providers to split the market into segments according to the size of organisations, is outdated.

“There is no basis for the frequent assertion by traditional software providers that there is such a thing as a small business product, a mid-market product and an enterprise product. Those are artefacts of the on-premise delivery model,” said Coffee.

“If I have Foxconn building the product for me, and DHL and Fedex and UPS providing my logistics support, I can be a really really big company with only 10 employees, and to tell me that I can only have the small business product because I can't afford a mainframe is insulting and stupid.

“In a cloud world, if we have a 10-person customer who wants to buy unlimited edition, we're fine with that, and if I have a 100,000 employee customer that only wants to equip 100 seats of our simplest package, well we're OK with that too. We sell capability and we can sell it in whatever sized package any given customer wants, because our cost structure isn't locked up in that.”

The cloud is here - whether you like it or not

One of the key announcements from Salesforce.com's recent Cloudforce event in London was that the company plans to create more than 750 new jobs in Europe over the next couple of years. Coffee said the growth that Salesforce.com has seen in Europe is largely due to increased acceptance of cloud computing models within the enterprise.

He said that, when companies say they don't use cloud, it is like somebody ten years ago saying they don't use Wi-Fi. Whether IT managers choose to acknowledge it or not, someone in their organisation will be using a cloud application, because they cannot get the problem solved quickly enough through formal channels.

“You have two choices. You can have a disciplined, governed, audited cloud implementation or you can have an ungoverned, inconsistent, under-the-radar cloud implementation. But saying we don't do that stuff here – it's not going to happen. You won't be able to, and you shouldn't really want to enforce that prohibition,” said Coffee.

Salesforce.com also confirmed plans to open a data centre in the UK during 2012, which will enable the firm to guarantee its European customers that their data will remain in the EU, in line with new data protection legislation.

Coffee asserted that the requirement for certain data to remain in certain countries is an artefact of outdated regulation, and said that Salesforce is working actively with institutions to change their understanding, from the physical location of data to the protocols and practices of key management and encryption that really provide protection.

“Data protection regulations based on physical location don't make any sense. Clearly encrypted data with badly managed access privileges is dangerous no matter where it is, and well encrypted data with rigorous privilege management and strong mechanisms for auditing how privileges are used is safe,” said Coffee.

“I could put an unencrypted hard drive mid-field in Wembley Stadium and be compliant, while the same data rigorously encrypted, but in Palo Alto, California, would be considered a grave threat.”

He said that Salesforce.com's systems record who accessed what data, when they accessed it and where they were when they accessed it. They can also provide very specific limitations on privileges, whereas older models based on physical possession of data make it much more difficult.

“Ultimately you have to give some people access to the data for it to be useful, but most systems do a terrible job of telling you what someone actually did with the privileges you gave them,” he said.

New skill sets

Coffee said that the the opportunity to deliver social enterprise engagement is currently limited by organisations' ability to staff those projects. This is because the skills needed in today's IT industry are very different from those that were needed ten years ago.

As the industry increasingly moves towards cloud computing models, and much of the complexity that IT departments had to deal with in the past is removed, people who are prepared to understand both the purpose of the business and the relevance of basic aspects of technology are going to be highly valued.

“Your ability to add value in your organisation over the next 10 years or 20 years, or for that matter the rest of your career, is primarily going to be derived from your ability to understand human goals, motivations and desires and build systems that fulfil them,” said Coffee.

While people used to build electrical equipment with soldering iron and pliers, now most equipment is constructed from chips, which integrate an enormous number of devices into one module. The same thing is happening in the software industry, whereby complex, esoteric skills are being transformed into abstracted services.

This doesn't mean that cloud computing is necessarily a threat to high tech employment. Coffee said that by adding value and shrinking cost, demand will grow to an extent that swamps the effects of the cost reduction. Furthermore, there will still be demand for IT professionals who know a loose connector when you see one.

“The abstraction of the cloud enormously increases productivity, but it doesn't eliminate the need for an IT professional still to have in the back of the mind the understanding of what's happening under the hood, so that when something is not working correctly the remediation strategy is immediately apparent,” said Coffee.

“That's why being an IT professional is not going to become a less demanding profession. And the number of IT professionals is going to grow and their sophistication is going to have to increase.”

While in the past, IT pros have been confined to the basement, due to the non-value-adding complexity of the technology specialism required, now they are being integrated into business units and and being rewarded based on the performance of the business function, rather than the activities they perform.

“The things that used to make an IT career difficult to enter and frustrating to sustain are being dramatically reduced, and people with energy and ingenuity can now use it and be rewarded for success instead of being punished for failure,” said Coffee.