What is Social Media’s Next Big Thing?

One possible answer:   The Enterprise.

No, no. Not the Star Trek kind of Enterprise (although that would be pretty cool).   I mean using social media technologies internally, within the large company kind of enterprise.

I’m often asked what I think the next big thing in social media might be.  I’m excited about a lot of different possibilities — true integrations with traditional advertising, big data, real-time interactivity with TV and movies, augmented reality, the promise of location-based apps, the Internet of Things — but “enterprise social media” is the idea that I think could be the biggest near-term game-changer for many large companies.

Let’s step back a minute and think about some of the benefits an individual realizes from social networking:

  • Linking people who might not otherwise be linked
  • Information sharing and education
  • Crowd-sourced innovation and problem-resolution
  • Collaboration
  • Relationship-building through trust and community
  • Exposure to diverse ideas

Now what if we applied social software to those people working within a company?  If employees in a far-flung global company could harvest these benefits internally, couldn’t this create a significant competitive advantage?

The enticing aspect of this idea is that the technology is certainly already there to achieve this. And, of course there are people in every company who would share the vision too.

So why aren’t we seeing more success stories in this area?  The problem is undoubtedly rooted in an issue I wrote about recently — companies are usually not moved to action by vague promises of improved collaboration. They want ROI, but sometimes the benefits of the social web are intangible, and very difficult to plot on a spreadsheet.

While there are isolated examples of success in applying social technologies across an enterprise, most companies still do not let employees access the social web from work, let alone implement internal social networking platforms.

A recent article by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown in the Harvard Business Review did a terrific job of capturing the potential of this opportunity as they explained how the social web can drive real internal company value.


“Access,” the authors note, involves the ability to find, learn about, and connect with the right people, information, and resources to address unanticipated needs.

In today’s global companies, the information needed to create a breakthrough idea, or even just do your job more effectively, may reside in people scattered across departments and geographies.  No organizational chart is going to help you find the knowledge you need.

Social software allows the user to reach out to a large number of relevant participants and bring them into a virtual discussion on a specific problem or challenge, so tacit knowledge is shared and new knowledge is created. But social software also captures, and makes these informal conversations searchable. IBM’s internal Twitter experiment is a well-documented example of the potential of this kind of application.


The biggest benefit I’ve personally received from social networking is attracting a group of people (like you!) who have helped me create new business benefits — concepts and opportunities I had not even considered before.

The article notes that this “serendipity,” or the discovery of important and needed resources without even knowing what to look for, is exactly what occurred for the Enterprise Social Media Experiment team at SAP.  What began as a discussion between a small group of participants grew into a synergistic global collaborative development effort between developers from different parts of the world.


“Achieve” is about driving more rapid learning and sustained performance improvement through meaningful relationships as they develop through the internal social network. Companies won’t be able to achieve sustained and extreme performance just by connecting workers weakly to resources and information.  The real value comes when the one-off interactions develop into relationships and those relationships facilitate sustained collaboration. Individuals and companies achieve their potential when they can tap into and create tacit knowledge through long-term collaborative relationships.

And just to add fuel to my argument about finding new ways to calculate the value of social media qualitatively, the authors also conclude that “Calculating a financial ROI requires too many assumptions, and it distracts from a more explicit focus on the key operating metrics that drive line managers. Once you have embarked on a social software implementation, measuring the improvement in specific operating metrics and looking for opportunities to tell and re-tell the stories of workers who became more productive through the use of these tools can make the connection to social software tangible for others in your organization.” So there. : )

What’s the next big thing in social media?  So many exciting possibilities!  Are you seeing any internal social applications in your company?  What innovations capture YOUR imagination?

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  • Mark,
    I think you are correct. Large companies could be the next big frontier for social media. I have several clients that could benefit from harnessing it. The big obstacle might be issues of privacy. Setting up private Twitter-like platforms might overcome the firewalls that block out access for certain things. Facebook access is limited and/or banned at some of these companies. They look at being able to use Linkedin as enormous freedom. Good write up.

  • Mark

    @Bob — Gosh, maybe I should have been more clear that yes, of course I was talking about private networks, as in the IBM example. Thanks for the clarification and for taking the time out of your busy day to comment today!

  • Hi Mark I think you are on to something here. I believe that businesses need to “harness” social media and that there may be less of a distinction between internal and external uses than may be at first imagined. I’ve titled this area the B2Me channel ( http://bit.ly/9WSpQq) and it’s where companies need to learn to interact with customers and employees in a new way. Charlene Li titled her recent book Open Leadership and I believe she is getting close to identifying the management revolution that’s is taking place. The B2Me channel will require dedicated skills, time and resource (including $) to fully exploit its potential. B2B and B2C will continue to exist as the the key revenue generating channels but B2Me will deliver the customer/employee insights and understanding that many businesses currently lack.

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  • Mark

    @Ray — Thanks for the link. My hunch on this is you’re making this too complicated, especially when you put a title on it (P.S. Naming a program means death of the program!). If you check out the link to the SAP or IBM successes, they started small and built on successes. Twitter is simple. With the proper sponsorship, an internal Twitter-like technology would be a piece of cake to deploy as IBM demonstrated. The tools are fun and simple on the outside. Make them the same way for the inside. And for heaven’s sake don’t make it a “project” (i.e. flavor of the month). At least that’s my take on it if I were the big boss : )

    Thanks so much for the link and ideas, Ray.

  • Ravi

    Sounds just like Status.net’s business model 😉 They’ve been doing enterprise microblogging for a little while now

  • @Ravi Tks for that. A really interesting site, I’ll investigate further.
    @Mark I think we need a balance between “overcomplicating” and getting business to realise that there is fundamental change going on in the market. Using existing language will always be fraught with preconceptions. Whilst social media is not that complicated, it is different from traditional sales and marketing activity, less telling, more listening. If businesses handle it as someone’s “sideline” then results will be disappointing.

  • I actually work for a large organisation which has implemented internal-facing social media tools. While there are some examples of success, the biggest barrier, IME, is changing people’s habits. Too often, people simply reach for e-mail. (Indeed, I am as guilty as the next – I get our internal social media systems to alert me to updates via e-mail, otherwise I run the risk of missing updates if work is busy.) We actually have a specialist group whose mission is to help on just that – changing people’s thinking and habits such that social media becomes more woven into the fabric of their days

  • Mark

    @Ravi — Cool!

    @Ray — I agree there needs to be accountability for this and probably an effort to drive adoption (as Steve’s comment attests. Thanks Ray!

    @Steve — This is fascinating. I would love to learn more about these adoption efforts and how this team is addressing the hurdles. Would make for a great follow-up post if appropriate. Really appreciate you adding your thoughts today.

  • @Mark — I think “slowly” is probably the correct adverb for describing how that team are progressing.

    My company has an enlightened external social media policy – all employees are encouraged to participate, but also must make it clear that they do not speak for the company. There are a great many people in the company who therefore do participate and who know what social media are about. So, in many cases, knowledge is not the hurdle. Where it is, the social networking group I mentioned earlier (4 people covering EMEA, two full-time on the project, two with other related responsibilities also) dedicate themselves to educating people. But the real way to understand social media is to participate, which is one of the reasons that the company has the overall policy in place.

    Externally, we are gradually getting many of our social media activities into a better structure (the problem with letting everyone get on with social media is that you get a fragmented presence very quickly); so for external social media, I believe our challenge is more to do with structuring, monitoring, objective setting and measurement. Oh, and deciding a relevant investment level 😉

    Internally, the story is different. For a start, the tools we have, being internally developed, are not as sophisticated as the external versions. So we have an internal version of Facebook, of Twitter and of YouTube. But the user experience on these versions is not (at least for me) as positive as the external ones. This is not surprising – we simply can’t afford the development overhead. Equally, we can’t use external platforms for sensitive internal discussions. Let me quote an example. We have an internal version of Twitter – but there are no clients such as TweetDeck to make it a really usable service. So I hardly touch it, because the lack of a decent desktop client really kills its usability.

    The result is a patchwork quilt. There are some areas where internal collaboration via social tools has reduced e-mail workload hugely, and sped up the sharing of internal knowledge enormously. I rather suspect that, for these specific groups, the use of the tools is pretty much mandated and so that has sped its adoption – that and the fact that using social tools for these areas makes a huge amount of sense.

    Equally, there are large areas of the company where internal collaboration is still e-mail led. And where there is a critical mass of people *not* using social tools, the social tools are not effective; so people don’t use them; so critical mass is not achieved – a vicious circle, sort of. If people don’t see the current system as broken then they will resist attempts to fix it.

    I have no doubt that, over time, the company will more and more use social tools in collaborative projects. But it will be slow progress unless something startling happens as a catalyst towards using the social tools.

    Otherwise, IMHO, the best way to get adoption of the tools is to mandate them and to get very senior management to lead by example. A classic case of this was in transforming IBM from using a (simple, bullet-proof but limited) mainframe-based company e-mail and calendar system to a (more complex, less robust but infinitely more flexible) Lotus Notes system.

    Lou Gerstner was in charge at that point, and his way of promoting usage of the new system was to completely stop using the old system. So if his senior management weren’t using the new system, they ran the risk of missing important meetings, etc. And so the use of Notes cascaded through the company because it was driven from the top down by a band of committed users.

    Now, *that’s* the way to provoke change! (I’m not saying it’s necessarily easy or practical; but it’s effective 🙂

  • Mark

    @Steve — That is an amazing case study and I think you hit on all the big hurdles — adoption, privacy, user experience and sponsorship. I agree that senior-level support is critical but it will probably crumble if the user experience is not excellent. The external apps have certainly set the bar high in this regard.

    Maybe it’s time for the major platforms to re-visit enterprise editions. This has not proved to be a big winner for Google (which powers many corporate search engines) and something like 99% of their revenue still comes from advertising. Undoubtedly that underwhelming success has dissuaded FB and Twitter from making it a priority. Still, there is market there isn’t there?

    Thanks for the tremendous contribution to the discussion Steve. I think your comment is far more important to the discussion than my original post!

  • Jim LeBlanc

    This is not a comment so much as a question for the community. I really liked Steve’s comments here and am wondering is there an off-the-shelf internal social platform available similar to Facebook?

  • I never thought about the internal uses of social media in an enterprise, but your article really opened up my eyes about it.
    I am actually encouraging the use of social media tools within my company, despite being a small business, I do believe the advantages of using it outweighs, by far, the possible dangers, which are anyway mitigated by a well thought social media policy.

  • You’re definitely hitting on something here. I don’t have the slightest doubt this will be one of the future development paths.

    What interests me most, however—and I’m addressing this question to the whole {grow} community (hope Mark doesn’t mind)—is whether there is a way companies could create closed external networks in the same way.

    Example: An ad agency has X number of clients and would like to keep in touch with them through a Twitter-like or Status.net-like system. How to create information channels from the agency to each client separately? And how to ensure there is a way to broadcast content to all of those channels if necessary?

    I’m talking about a fictitious ad agency here, but the same applies to any big corporation with different departments/functions/interest areas.

    The point, of course, is to provide maximum openness and usage encouragement while making sure sensitive information stays where it is supposed to stay (for example, a company’s product development discussions might not be suitable for company-wide discussion).

    Grateful for any enlightenment.

  • Thanks Mark — great post, and great discussion you’ve inspired. I absolutely agree that enterprise social media/networking is the next big thing, and it’s already happening to a fair extent from the big tech companies (IBM, EMC, SAP, Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, etc.). They’re seeing some great advantages in information sharing, collaboration, team building, innovation and so on.

    To Kimmo’s question, there are definitely ways to open up these platforms to individual or specified groups of clients (and partners, etc.) while maintaining security and privacy. Jive and other platform companies offer pretty sophisticated and easy to use capabilities for this.

    I actually just did some research with EMC on their efforts to do exactly this with the EMC Community Networks, which is a whole set of online communities that have varying levels of participation and access – some totally public, others invite-only, others totally behind the firewall. Great participation and great results.

    We’re still early in all this, but there should be enough success and modeling out there to show folks that this is indeed a big deal!

  • Mark

    @Jim — Looks like some ideas are starting to flow in. Excellent question. Thanks!

    @Gabriele — I agree, in most cases. There have been cases where I work with a client and have encouraged them to stay under the radar because they had some internal house-keeping to do first!

  • cole mauer

    I think an application like tweetdeck that has a great desktop interface and now a mobile app to compliment it would work well at companies of all sizes as an internal microblog. the customizable lists ensure organization and efficiency while allowing an easy conversion from email. Likewise, the alerts make sure you don’t miss that message from the top. To those of you on Android mobile I highly recommend tweetdeck app for the same reasons.

  • Mark

    @Kimmo — If I’m understanding your challenge correctly, it might be solved through private customer portals — sort of like customizable “My Yahoo” pages for each customer that require a log-in. I implemented this concept at a large global company with fantastic success. We could target content to a person, a company, an industry (like aerospace) or all of our customers at the same time, all in a private setting. One limitation is engagement and collaboration. Somewhat limited because the information is private by individual so they can’t see comments from a group, or at least we could not do that in our system.

    Great to see you here Kimmo! Thanks!

  • Mark

    @Rob — That is an awesome contribution to the discussion today. Are any of these case studies available to the public? That has been a hurdle to adoption — if companies are seeing benefits, why would they broadcast their strategies to the industry? P.S. I probably wouldn’t either : )

    Thanks so much for your insider’s insight!

    @Cole — Just to be clear, are you “wishing” there was a Tweetdeck-like app for internal communications or are you suggesting it could be done now on a private network? I’m trying to think that one through. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Cole!

  • Mark you explore another great topic as ususal! I think the area of social media in our government still has room to {Grow} 😉 I know that candidates and even the president have made it a big part of their strategy, but the federal agencies have not embraced it to its full potential yet. All of the benefits that you mention in this post could improve many of our federal agencies greatly. Lets hope they embrace the technology soon.

    P.S. Hello to my good friend Ravi 😉 Welcome to the {Grow} community!


  • Hey Mark another great observation! I’ve got to totally agree with Rob! And, as Ravi suggested, Status.Net has been pursuing this opportunity and currently has thousands of corporate networks running. There also others like Yammer, Jive, Lithium, Awareness, SocialText, and various Online Forum Technologies (lefora) etc. What’s really interesting is the value (through a private network) of “socially” blending employees with customers and other interested parties. Some believe that this “Deep Web” can be (and may be already) bigger than all public networks (Twitter, Facebook, Orkut, HI5 etc) combined because they are focused communities of specific interests and generating immeasurable corporate value.

  • Mark

    @Reza — That is a great observation. My fault for not even mentioning that opportunity. Almost any level of government could derive some benefits. Great comment!

    @Steve — Wow, thanks for passing along those resources. I need to look into some of these myself. Really tremendous insight Steve.

  • Hi Mark – and all. Great discussion. Steve cited a bunch of the platform and tool vendors supporting enterprise social media/networking, and they have a bunch of case studies on their sites (caution for puff pieces required, of course). I haven’t published my own EMC case studies yet, but hopefully pretty soon, so will keep you posted on that. But search for “EMC|ONE” and you’ll find some good stuff on their experience.

  • You mentioned social media ROI and corporate/enterprise application which I believe are the two major reason why most of companies are reluctant adopting social media. What do you think these two factors will evolve (whether how to measure ROI or what to define in social policy) before the enterprise happens?

  • hello



    although – having tried it – the social dynamics aren’t the same inside the system – needs tweaking…

  • @Steve Thanks for taking the time to tell your story, very helpful. I wonder if we’re clear yet on what the context (what’s this all about ?) of in-company use of social media. Even in the wider world I think we have got a bit stuck on a context of connection and perhaps information sharing. Is there an argument that in the company the context of social media interaction is actually learning. What company could resist a tool that educates and shares knowledge faster than ever before. Are we going back to “learning from one another” but simply in a bigger and more efficient manner ?

  • Boy, that’s a lot to digest, but what an interesting approach. Congratulations on thinking outside the box.

    A lot of people, I find, are still referring to Social Media as “just another tool.” I think your post provides proof that it in fact is much more than that. Much more indeed.

  • Mark

    @Rob — Very helpful! Thank you! I will spend some time on this.

    @Evelyn, Actually Faris has a very good quote in the link he provided:

    “So, looking at a short term ROI when assessing the value of social media is antithetical to the emerging reputation and gift economy that operates there. You need to take a longer- term view.”

    Also, I have written several articles about the need to take a qualitative view to measurement or a company is going to miss the big ideas and the core value. One article is here: https://www.businessesgrow.com/2010/02/23/social-media-measurement-sometimes-a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-tweets/

    I know that doesn’t help if your company is pounding a fist asking for ROI. I’ve been there. I feel your pain. : (

    If you need to talk this strategy through, please feel free to call me. I’m a full-service blogger.

  • Mark

    @Faris — First of all your post is awesome. Thanks for the link. I see it was written more than a year ago and you said the social dynamics weren’t the same. You have tantalized us with this information! I can only imagine how corporate politics might have crept in and torpedoed this. Would it be possible to interview you about this? Might be an interesting follow-up post!

    @Ray — Thanks for your contributions to the dialogue.

    @Marjorie — I have been working with a company that has a vision to place social media tools in many areas of the company. Slow adoption but lots of potential! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts today!

  • @Ray You say “What company could resist a tool that educates and shares knowledge faster than ever before.” This sounds reasonable and logical, but assumes that there’s such a thing as “a company” that takes and executes on such a decision. Of course the reality, when it comes to communications and particularly social media tools, is that unless a critical mass of individuals within a company see some kind of compelling benefit from adoption of a new tool, they will simply stick with the old ones, no matter what “decision” the “company” has taken 🙂

    People’s habits are difficult to shift, particularly if their workload is heavy. If one’s nose is hard against the grindstone, it’s difficult to decide to invest *extra* time in learning a new way of doing things. “When you’re up to your arse in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your job was to clear the swamp” 🙂

    For this reason, a massive part of fostering internal adoption of social media tools is a change management exercise, dependent upon the quality of the tools, yes, but even more on the incentive to change.

  • @Steve: I would tend to agree that we’re talking about a major change here, and that a big internal change effort is required. But I’ve recently watched an interesting example that goes the other way. One of my clients, a very large tech company, implemented an internal social network tool in May of this year. They have a few people charged with internal evangelism, hoping to get people testing the platform, but mostly they’re just hoping it will take hold “by itself.” The lead evangelist had hoped that 10,000 employees would at least register on the system by the end of this year — and they actually had more than 27,000 sign up by the end of September! Not everyone is actively using if, of course, but the range of discussion groups, knowledge sharing sites, blogs, and other activities is pretty amazing given that this is often seen as a conservative culture and that, of course, people are incredibly busy and stressed in their daily jobs. The reality is that thousands of people are seeing real value here and figuring out ways to make it useful.

    This mirrors the EMC experience I mentioned earlier. In many work environments, least, I think that people want to be social, that social tools can be extremely helpful in daily work, and that adoption of these platforms may come a lot faster than some of us would think.

  • Mark

    @Steve and @Rob — This is really a vital discussion that boils down to the culture of a company. In general, I find that there needs to be some change effort involved or the effort will be sub-optimized. So even in Rob’s success story, could there have been even broader participation and engagement with a methodical effort to educate and reward people for usage?

    I think Rob’s tremendous success story also implies that there was VALUE delivered to the participants. If people can easily determine the personal benefit, change will take off like a rocket.

    And, as has already been mentioned a company with a culture of technology, innovation and change like the high-tech giants mentioned, may need less prodding than a traditional manufacturing company.

    Awesome points, great dialogue. Thank you!

  • Sounds like Microsoft has got the pulse on this one with SharePoint 2010 and it’s use of enterprise social media.

  • Super post, Mark – I’d like to see more “undirected knowledge discovery” in enterprise social media – the automated assembly and even beginnings of curation of a company’s knowledge assets as shared socially (behind a firewall, of course.) We use Socialcast at Edison as a kind of private “watering hole,” but new and as yet undeveloped tools to mine all of that incidental/serendipitous content into FAQs, wikis and other more manageable information troves would be truly awesome.


  • Mark

    @Randy — Honestly i have not had time to look into this yet but I would not be surprised. They are a well-managed company.

    @Tom — You have my wheels turning on this one. A small example — I see all these tidbits flying at me on Twitter. Suddenly I will start to see a bigger picture — that serendipity you mention — and see the potential for a great blog post. But alas, too often the tidbits are long gone by the time i have this insight and I don’t have the pieces any more to be reference points. I need to be able to drag and drop tweets, posts and status updates into topic buckets. I’m honored that you took the time to comment today, Tom. Thank you!

  • @Steve I agree that these tools cannot be forced on employees. However the reverse is true that a “company” cannot ignore the fact that a significant portion of their workforce may be active on twitter, FB etc in their own time. Non engaged staff will be exactly that when they participate, learn and share on social media.
    @Rob A great story, thank you. I think you are right that lots of people all want to share & connect as a natural activity. I’m a business coach and if I had a dollar for every employee that has told me “communication here sucks” I’d be very wealthy. Now maybe communication is becoming more democratised.
    @[email protected] I think you are speaking about what we’re calling social learning. I believe we may be going back to the days before whiteboards, seminars & “courses” where we learned from the guy (or girl) who knew a bit more than we did. We’re building a platform at Clienteerhub where we will hopefully be able to do the things you are describing Mark (around retained searchable knowledge) albeit for us that will be in one vertical – customer management.

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  • Joseph Ruiz

    Great post and conversation. Refreshing to see this under consideration. In Josh Bernoff’s new book Empower he talks about the need for corps to catch up with consumers who are using this media. I think there is great potential for a competitive advantage to the companies who can sort this out.
    Here is a link from Mashable on this topic http://is.gd/gbMld.
    Thanks Best Regards

  • Mark

    @Joe — Outstanding. Thank you.

  • Mark, the questions you raise at the end of each of your posts I’ve visited thus far {this one included} are captivating, engaging, enthralling, exciting, and thought-provoking.

    To answer your specific questions {presented above} here and now…

    > By sharing your vision often Mark; seeing and using social application in the way we’re interacting with our offline and online clients and potential clients.

    > Innovations that capture my imagination are still in their formative stages. The one thing for sure is to resurrect and make current our past articles and blogs; putting aside reactions received from those {made earlier this year} that sharing past articles and posts are of no interest and mostly overlooked by many current potentially interested parties.

    > To continue searching for technical assistance with the construction of the 3-dimensional impressionistic installation presented on “Art galleries come alive with new media innovations (video)” http://tinyurl.com/28yv8hw

    With appreciation and gratitude for your availability to {grow} 🙂

  • markwschaefer

    @DrRae Thanks. I am constantly inspired by your urgency to learn, your helpful spirit and your wisdom Dr. Rae!

  • Anonymous

    I think salesforce.com (with Chatter) and Tibco (with tibbr) are trying to crack this open…not sure if the “private social network” approach they take gets at the real value for custOmer and business employee/management interaction.

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  • Arthur Arkwright

    Having been exposed to the use of Social Media for internal communications in a corporate organization, I offer the following: If I find the person responsible for it, I will break their fingers. The “corporate stream” is little more than a conduit for an endless stream of sycophantic remarks, punctuated by the odd posting from people intent on becoming a legend in their own lunchtime and, of course, the endless streams of drivel from HR and from Marketing.

    Internal social media is just as unpleasant as things like Faecebook and Twitter but with the added layer of repulsiveness in that one is expected to use it.

    Also: consider this for a moment. “I heard on Faecebook” is nothing more than an Internet-centric version of “I heard from some bloke down the pub” nothing more, nothing less – Good luck with ISO 9000 etc., traceability on anything you hear and use in your services and products.

    It is interesting to note that, of the people who actually achieve things within my organisation, none appear to bother with the infection that is social media – internal or external.

  • Congratulations. Somehow you’ve found a post that’s seven years old and commented on it! So it’s a good time to reflect on the accuracy of the post. Since I wrote this several years ago I’ve had the opportunity to be closely involved with internal social media programs. These platforms have come a LONG WAY since 2010 and I kind of agree with you and kind of disagree with you.

    I agree that there can be huge problems with adoption and time-wasting. No question. But these new platforms also “learn” about the company through usage and can really contribute to problem-solving and collaboration. Here’s an example. in a multi-national, a person with a problem in Chicago posted on the corporate site seeking advice. Based on past topics, search terms, etc. the problem was suggested as relevant content to a colleague in India who solved the issue. That connection probably would have never happened otherwise. Another one — a company with a complex supply chain is integrating a platform as a sort of ERP-light solution to get people on the same page with supply communications. Good discussion. There are opportunities and risks.

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