by Steve Garnett, chairman EMEA, salesforce.com

It was inevitable that the Internet would play a key part in the political decision-making process in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. After all, we saw a similar process of online engagement with the voting public characterise the 2008 presidential campaign in the United States.

These techniques were used to particularly good effect by Barack Obama and his team. His change.gov platform helped to raise his personal profile, involve the population in debate and provide ideas to drive the administration’s first year. By the end of the election, it had received nearly 40 million visits - and its popularity provided the first conclusive proof of the power of online crowd-sourcing, for ideas generation, discussion and collaboration.

Mirroring Obama

A similarly positive process of online engagement happened in the UK. According to analytical firm Experian, in the UK, vote-related searches increased by 169 per cent between the week ending 3 April and the week ending 10 April 2010, with searches for the most popular term, ‘register to vote’, increasing nine-fold.

During the historic first televised leaders’ debate on ITV, Twitter registered more than 184,396 tweets, equating to more than 29 tweets-per-second.

Similarly, surfers flocked in their tens-of-thousands to other social networks, blogs, news sites and, mirroring the experience in the US, crowd-sourcing sites, to comment on, and consume information about, the event. The Debate2010 site, for example, provided a dedicated, central platform for parties and voters to have their say. The site was developed using Salesforce Ideas, a crowd-sourcing application delivered in the cloud which enables users to vote on policies and debate topics. With the voting system pushing the most popular ideas to the surface, Debate2010.co.uk offers a clear overview of what the public really thinks of the key political issues.

The benefit of Debate2010 has now been taken on a further stage by the development of a Citizens’ Briefing Book, which reflects the approach carried out in the US in early 2009 by collating the recommendations made by the public and publishing them in the form of a wish list of policies for the incoming government. The most popular debates, topics and ideas of the election campaign are all highlighted in the document.

SMEs — Joining the Debate

Of course, one of the great benefits of crowd-sourcing sites like Debate2010, and associated ‘recommendation’ documents like the Citizen’s Briefing Book, is that they provide a ‘level playing field’ allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. From a business perspective, this is good news for SMEs as it helps them compete on an equal footing with larger enterprises with greater resources, and get their points of view across just as effectively.

Indeed, the second most popular debate listed in the Briefing Book in terms of comments was particularly pertinent to SMEs, namely:“You're the new Chancellor. What will you do with your first year in power?”

The focus was on what the Chancellor could do to help maintain and even bolster the country's economic situation, both internally and externally, as the world battles the effects of a worldwide economic meltdown. Employees working within SMEs were well placed here to put forward their views on the “eye-watering array of tough decisions” facing the new Chancellor on stepping through the front door of 11 Downing Street.”

Equally, on the Debate2010 site itself the need to support small enterprises to help drive the UK’s economic recovery was a popular topic of discussion with much attention focused on what the next government should do ‘to boost investment in the thousands of small businesses that need help in these tough times’.

Among the most popular and hotly debated ideas here were ‘encourage innovators’, ‘reduce regulation’ and ‘encourage all social and economic groups to develop skills needed for small business’.

Debate2010 and the Citizen’s Briefing Book together provide a compelling example of the emergence of a new age of real-time collaboration, which is bringing particular benefits to the SME community. Today, these organisations are using these kinds of tools for much more than just political engagement and influencing. Increasingly, their employees are using them to collaborate in real-time with colleagues, partners and customers, and to quickly access the key information they need to do their jobs more effectively.

Keeping in Touch

This new model of business engagement has particular benefits for SMEs. Historically, SME employees have struggled to monitor everything happening within the organisation. They have frequently missed critical internal information because the existing collaboration tools they use put the onus on them to find the details they need rather than presenting them with the facts they need.

Today, the advent of real-time business collaboration platforms is helping SMEs to break free of the cost and complexity of legacy software. This new generation of real-time tools is easy-to-use and delivers relevant information to individuals, based on the people, documents and applications they have chosen to follow.

One example of the application of a new collaboration paradigm to business is Salesforce Chatter. With Chatter, users can interact and share information in real-time from their laptops or mobile devices regardless of where they are located, in a secure, trusted business application environment. This drives productivity through a more effective communication channel than email or intranets.

Such tools also allow managers to leverage employee business profiles more effectively through professional information such as contact details, areas of expertise and work history. Equally, the use of relevant, context-specific information enables them to quickly identify those individuals best able to contribute to the success of a particular project or task.

Status updates allow employees to automatically keep colleagues informed with dynamic alerts and prevent duplication of effort on key deals or projects for example. Through such features, staff can even share files and links to provide additional context around a project, sales deal or customer support case.

Real-time feeds also allow employees to receive personalised updates from people, applications and documents, enabling them to stay abreast of everything that is important to them in a business context. Applications can flag time-sensitive developments like an overdue invoice, a late shipment or expiring contract or important change in customer contact, which in turn, allow employees to better anticipate and proactively deliver customer value.

It also allows SMEs to reach outside the core tool itself and into the wider social networking arena. With over 500 million users worldwide actively using social networks, there is no doubt that the centre of gravity for real-time communication has shifted dramatically to these new channels. SMEs need to effectively leverage these forums for interaction to drive top line growth and reduce operating expenses in such areas as customer service or marketing.

The social networks features that salesforce.com has integrated into Chatter enable users to pull in relevant information from social media about the company’s brand experience in the marketplace and reaction to product offerings and service quality. By gaining insights into customer satisfaction and sharing expertise with the community, SMEs can achieve greater customer engagement.

A Widening Debate

The Internet, social networking and real-time collaboration, in particular, have helped to shape and influence the debate in the most recent US and UK elections as the respective Citizens Briefings Books show. By the time these two countries next go to the polls, they are likely to play a still greater role.

SMEs ought to welcome these developments. They will have a platform to put forward their own ideas and to ensure that issues get a fair hearing.

However, as these businesses are increasingly discovering, real-time collaboration is about much more than just political debate - important though that is. With a new generation of real-time business collaboration tools, spearheaded by Salesforce Chatter, the industry's first real-time enterprise collaboration application and platform, companies will be smarter, more productive and more efficient across all their operations. Highly filtered and relevant content, applications and people will drive real-time conversation and updates to business users through a secure, private social network within the enterprise.

SMEs, with their overriding focus on growth and with especially intensive demands on their time and resources, are likely to be particularly receptive to this trend.