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SAP cautiously ponders social networking

Possibly lost among the much more significant announcements at SAP's SAPPHIRE conference this week -- a natural language enterprise search engine and a renewed commitment to the green bottom line -- SAP executives provided a preview of social networking applications currently under development.

"We showed a peek inside the technology in our development organization," said Jonathan Becher, senior vice president of marketing at SAP.

In the demonstration, co-CEO Léo Apotheker and Iam Kimbell, SAP vice president, collaborated on a decision. Both manipulated data using the SAP Business Objects Explorer in order to choose the next state in which their fictional company would provide RIM mobile devices to its employees.

It seems clear that SAP wants to add the best of LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook to its service, but the offering seemed primitive and lacked customization features.

Nevertheless, the company is embracing Web 2.0 in anticipation of change. Apotheker said that the company is preparing for a new generation. "Over the next 10 years one-third of the world's workforce will retire and the digital generation and those that grew up with social networks will join workforce," he said.

SAP intends to be ready. "They will want software to be easy to use -- even fun -- like other tools on the Internet. They want software that is, to use the hip expression, cool."

But this initiative will not play to the company's strong points. Its core business is helping operations teams monitor the entire supply chain of a product, helping HR deliver services to lifetime employees throughout their careers. It is about detail-oriented management using well-defined processes.

Social networking and collaboration are explicitly the opposite. Collaboration is about employees evading the org chart and the operational silos they live in so that they can work together briefly on specific projects. Social networking as most developers see it is a tool to present group managers with a menu of skills for their projects so that they kind find useful employees whom they would never otherwise meet.

Instead, SAP, in this abbreviated demo, appeared to be using social networking within the org chart. It is possible that the company will find a market in using the technology to streamline hard-coded workflow and approval processes, but if it does so it will be competing with specific workflow optimization products, not with social networking or collaboration software.

If SAP does not deliver true, open social networking it may not miss out on much. Some experts are saying that the technology is still not ready for business.

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