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.