Announced today, Salesforce Communities addresses one of the most important steps in becoming a Social Enterprise. The 'dancing bear' era of merely having a social presence is over, and it's no longer impressive (or even adequate) merely to acquire and use social tools: it's essential to adopt social behaviors as part of scalable, governable and constantly improvable processes.

No one is interested, not any more, in the novelty of having a conversation about a process that addresses some other system's problem. The conversation must include the process. As New Zealand-based blogger Ben Kepes has already observed, with the head start on this day that comes with a convenient choice of time zone: "If I buy a pair of shoes for example, I’d much rather engage on an online forum that has visibility over the actual sales transaction. By tying business process and workflow to external communities, [] makes a compelling bid for end-to-end engagement." Exactly.

What I see in Salesforce Communities is the vital step into the second generation of 'social': the step that turns a technology model from an immature but interesting alternative, into a compelling improvement over what has come before. We've seen this process many times, as most people get started with a new tool by using it to do familiar things...

...but users quickly learn to recognize, and shun, these tentative tries. Not only do first-generation experiments often fail to move forward; they may even be backward steps, if content that was well designed for old media is moved without consideration for a new medium's differences (for example, a Web page that can't flow into a resized window).

In almost every case, it takes time to figure out that the power of the tool is the new things that it makes possible, but that you never would have been crazy enough to try before (or even to imagine doing at all). It's always a great moment, then, when second-generation tools make it much, much easier to do what's actually interesting...

  • Blogging sites with comment tools allowed non-programmers to conduct a seminar, instead of just making a speech;
  • Web analytics like Radian6 made it possible to see how ideas were spreading and interacting across the network, far beyond observing the debate at just one node.

...and today marks one of these transforming steps, as Salesforce Communities lets companies integrate social behaviors into business processes. This turns The Social Enterprise (which I explain as best I can in this 14-minute video) from an option, into a mandate, for any company that wants to be still relevant when the next Olympic cauldron gets lit in 2014.

Thrust SSC PlansIt's always been difficult to envision dramatic improvements, once we've gotten actually good at dealing with present limitations. Consider this description by the first man to drive at the terrifying speed of a mile a minute: "In its maddening dash through the swirling dust the machine takes on the attributes of a sentient thing... I tell you, gentlemen: no man can drive faster and live!" Well, that turned out to be off by more than an order of magnitude, but people didn't drive twelve times faster by putting a bigger engine in the 1903 vehicle that broke the 60 mph barrier.

Neither does a company become a Social Enterprise by publishing a more elaborate Web page, or investing in more server throughput, or doing any of the things that strive to do more of what's done today. 'Social' is a behavior change; becoming a social enterprise is the use of technology to make that change in a way that yields business success. What records will you break?