built a billion-dollar company by allowing companies to ditch their CRM software and bringing CRM to the cloud. Now it has its sights set on perhaps an even bigger feat: bringing social media to the enterprise.

Yesterday, the company announced that it will be launching a new service called Salesforce Chatter in 2010. Think of it as Facebook for the enterprise: a social networking service for companies with an application platform to boot.

Enterprise social networking is one of those ‘no-brainer‘ concepts, and for that reason isn’t the first company to try cracking the enterprise social networking nut.

It’s a tough nut to crack, however. For obvious reasons, many businesses are tepid when it comes to anything involving the two words ‘social networking‘. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, et. al. may be employee favorites but most employees aren’t using these popular social networks for work purposes when they log on at 10 am. Social networks have also created a number of risks for businesses, from the possibility that confidential information could be posted to the possibility that employee conduct could embarrass the company.

So while the application of social networking technology to the workplace seems like a no-brainer, consumer-facing social networks are often more likely to become a nuisance or threat to businesses than they are to serve as a viable hub for constructive employee interaction. That makes social networking in general a tough sell for many companies. is trying to change that with product designed specifically for the enterprise and which harnesses many aspects of the model that has made its CRM offering so popular:

Salesforce Chatter will revolutionize the workplace by leveraging the social networking models made popular by the consumer Web, allowing any company to collaborate in real time with a secure, private social network for their business. Content, applications and people will now have profiles, feeds and groups, enabling them to be deeply connected. In addition, developers will now be able to use the Salesforce Chatter platform to build social enterprise applications, and all 135,000 native applications will instantly become social.

The standard social networking features are present, including profiles, status updates and groups. But where really seems to be making the biggest push: allowing developers to extend its functionality. The Chatter platform gives developers access to APIs that can pull in data “from any app, including on-premise software apps, so that any enterprise app can
join the conversation
“. Additionally, is wisely not shutting out familiar names. There are developer toolkits for Facebook, Twitter and Google Apps, enabling developers to bring in data from these popular services.

Chatter will included in all paid versions of Salesforce CRM and and will also offer a standalone Chatter Edition for $50/user/month.

The $64,000 question: how many companies and employees really need and want all of this? In his company’s press release,’s CEO Marc Benioff rhetorically asks, “Why do I know more about strangers on Facebook than my own employees?” The not-so-subtle suggestion: businesses should be taking advantage of the same sort of social networking tools found on services like Facebook and LinkedIn to build more connected organizations.

But no matter how great Salesforce Chatter is, the challenge here isn’t related to technology. While appears to have built a great product, building a cool social networking platform isn’t the hard part. The hard part is getting employees to use it. Individuals log on Facebook and MySpace primarily for fun and entertainment. Sure you can mix business with pleasure, but by and large the employee who keeps a Facebook browser tab open at all times to check his news feed isn’t using Facebook to interact with co-workers to ‘get the job done‘ more effectively. He’s using it as a distraction from the pain of finishing that spreadsheet for his boss.

From this perspective, I question whether or not Salesforce Chatter will become more than the Web 2.0 incarnation of the boring company intranet. If is to avoid this fate, I think it (and its customers) will have to figure out how to motivate employees to use it. If can do that, it just might realize the potential of the much-ballyhooed Enterprise 2.0. If not, Chatter won’t be much to talk about.

Photo credit: Jon Mountjoy via Flickr.