When I say Thomson Reuters (NYSE:TRI), I bet your mind immediately strays to the company's namesake news service. And there's nothing wrong with that. Reuters is a global news giant with more than 150 years of history behind it. That's the kind of background that builds an immediately recognizable brand.
But news reporting is actually less than half of Thomson Reuters' business. It's baked together with financial analysis services into the company's largest segment, which sits alongside a legal and regulatory consulting operation, tax and accounting services, and intellectual property management operations.
Thomson Reuters is actually a very complex business, but all four of its core units have one thing in common: They all focus on collecting, managing, and distributing copious amounts of information, and mostly in digital formats.
Speaking at the recent TUCON 2013 conference, Thomson Reuters' chief technical officer, James Powell, dove into what it takes to move this digital machine into the social networking era.
Ten years ago, the company wanted to design and build its own tools for everything. "We believed that we were unique and special," Powell said. "At the time, we were unique. We were doing millions of data transactions every second on our backbone, when this was a relatively uncommon thing."
But Thomson Reuters is not a technology company at heart. It's an information business and, at some point, it just made more sense to leave the technical platform building to experts in that field. So, when Thomson Reuters needed to drag its massive information operations into the social networking age, management told their eager engineers to sit back and let an off-the-shelf social networking solution do the heavy lifting.
Catching the social wave
Reuters standardized its social platform on TIBCO Software 's (UNKNOWN:TIBX.DL) tibbr platform. It's kind of like Skype plus WebEx, designed for massive enterprise environments, and customizable to the nth degree. And because Tibco actually ran as a division of Thomson Reuters many years ago, Powell could expect an extremely high level of commitment and partnership. And that's exactly what Reuters was looking for.
The downside to tweaking commercial products to your own liking is that it often takes time to get everything working. In this case, Thomson Reuters moved from concept discussions to a live tibbr launch in just five months. That includes building tibbr-based networking into Thomson Reuters' internal communication tools and into customer-facing products.
Currently, the company has one technology that connects internal staffers to one another, external customers to other customers, and connects the company to the outside world. Building a solution like that from scratch would have taken years, if it were possible at all.
Now, tibbr is hardly the only social platform for corporations, and Tibco is not the only provider. Thomson Reuters could have gone with Cisco Systems ' (NASDAQ:CSCO) WebEx solution to achieve similar results. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) didn't buy Skype because it's such a cool consumer-level messaging app -- Redmond sees serious enterprise value in Skype's messaging technology. Even stodgy old IBM (NYSE:IBM) has its IBM Connections solution for use, just like Thomson Reuters'.
IBM Connect and Skype weren't exactly right for Reuters. The company has a history with Tibco, and wouldn't get this extreme level of customization and bend-over-backwards service anywhere else. These things are important to Reuters.
But tibbr isn't necessarily the best choice for everyone. Companies with a deeper Cisco relationship might prefer WebEx for pretty much the same reasons why Tibco won the Reuters deal. Others might have specific feature requirements that only IBM or Skype could meet -- and not enough clout to make anybody create new features on demand.
The Foolish takeaway
Reuters was smart to jump aboard the social bandwagon, even smarter for standardizing the whole company on one solution, and downright genius to find a vendor with exactly the right combination of technology and long-standing relationships.
Reuters saw a gap in its business model, did its homework, and got the job done in the best possible way. On the vendor side, Tibco saw a partner with unmet needs, and threw the kitchen sink into pleasing this strategic partner.
That's smart business thinking on both sides of the equation. You should demand no less from every company in your portfolio.
Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Tibco Software.
The Motley Fool recommends Cisco Systems and Tibco Software. The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.