On Jan 14th, Facebook officially announced their much rumoured Facebook at Work offering. This private version of the popular social network is designed to provide employees a place to collaborate securely with their colleagues. This sounds like a great idea, if it were still 2010.
In the late 2000s a shift began taking place that was commonly referred to as Enterprise 2.0, or E20. In E20 companies began adopting "social tools" such as blogs, wikis and activity streams to enable employees to communicate and collaborate more openly than they were doing via email. To explain this shift to potential buyers, early vendors such as Socialtext (where I was Director of Marketing), Yammer, SocialCast, Jive Software and others would use the analogy “It’s like a Facebook for the Enterprise". Even though forums and communities have been around since the 70s (the Well, AOL, Compuserve, etc.) a great deal of credit goes to Facebook, for popularising the modern era of social networking.
Around 2011/12 the theme os “Facebook for the Enterprise” began to evolve, as it was not resonating well with executives. They assumed this type of behaviour at work would be a waste of time, sating things like "Why would I want employees sharing pictures of what they had for lunch?" The lack of understanding of how social network could benefit businesses lead to my introducing of the theme of Purposeful Collaboration, where social features were integrated directly into the business tools people use to get their jobs done. Organizations realised that employees need social to be part of the way people work, not a separate destination to go to. This has led to vendors such as SAP, Oracle, Salesforce, Infor, IBM, Microsoft (who acquired Yammer) and others have made sharing, commenting and liking native features of their CRM, ERP, HR and other business applications.
Fast forward to today, where Google has struggled to gain mainstream enterprise adoption of Google+ and vendors like Slack, Glip, Hall, Unify (formerly Siemens) and Cisco have started to blend collaboration and unified communication. So, is Facebook's announcement too little, too late? Not necessarily. Below are a few of the pros and cons of Facebook at Work.
- Name Recognition: Facebook is "the standard" when it comes to social networking. Like it or not, it's a household name. You know the saying "fish where the fish are", well almost everyone is familiar with Facebook to some degree. Sure the demographics are changing and younger people are avoiding Facebook because it's for old people... but those "old people" are the workers of today so why not provide them Facebook at Work?
- Familiar User Experience: Yes, Facebook has had several hiccups when it comes to the design of their timeline, but they remain one of the key influencers on how people use activity streams/news feeds. Since people are already familiar with it, employers can save time and money by avoiding education and training on a new tool. As my colleague Holger Mueller points out, Facebook's popularity forces other vendors to improve their products, which is a win for users.
- Large Partner Ecosystem: Perhaps the biggest plus Facebook has going is the massive ecosystem of developers than know their API and can build add-on tools. While most of the current apps are games, it's not a far stretch to image a shift from Farmville and Candy Crush integration to add-ons for SAP, Salesforce, file sharing, web-conferencing, and other business tools.
- Bridging Employee to Customer engagement: Today many companies already have a "business relationship" with Facebook via their company's Facebook Page. Facebook could provide a compelling solution that bridges private employees conversations with the ones taking place with customers. So for example, a support team could see a question on the company Facebook page and route it to the right product manager to get an answer. Note: I'm not saying this bridging exists today, I'm saying it could be a useful feature if Facebook delivered it.
- Application Assets: Facebook has several applications outside of the news feed that could provide the foundation for a useful business platform. These include: Messenger (for chatting/voip/video calls), Instagram (photos and videos), Paper (displaying news/content) and Events (calendar).
- Massive Mobile Usage: a very high percentage of Facebook usage comes from mobile devices such as phones and tablets. Facebook's experience in this area could be a strong selling point to organizations who's employees require anytime/anywhere access.
- Enterprise Software Is Not Consumer Software: Often when consumer companies try and break into the business world they fail to understand that companies have different requirements than individuals. Organizations have to deal with things like auditing and compliance, accessibility, multiple language support, directory integration, administration of people and groups and billing/usage reports. Facebook will need to show that they can meet these business requirements before business will use them for work.
- No Purposeful Collaboration: As mentioned above, companies have shifted away from just wanting a social networking to wanting collaboration tools that integrate with the tools employees use to do their jobs. For Facebook at Work to be successful, they are going to need to provide integration with CRM, ERP, HR, Customer Service/Support, Marketing, Finance and other business software. They will also need to have integrated with functions such as project/task management, file sharing, and web conferencing. This con can be linked to the pro above of partner ecosystem, as the lack of these things provides opportunity for partners to fill in the gaps. The Facebook Custom Stories platform (Open Graph) already has the framework for these integrations, no people just need to build them.
- Lack of Vertical Expertise: It's not enough to just provide a single collaboration platform and try and have it fit all use-cases. Winning collaboration vendors understand the specific needs of industries such as Healthcare, Finance Services, Legal, Manufacturing, Entertainment, Government, etc. Facebook will need to build teams in each of these areas if they hope to sell into specific industries.
- Privacy Concerns: Warranted or not, most people have concerns about what Facebook does with their information. While Facebook has stated that you will have to switch IDs between personal and work, they still have a lot of work to do to convince organizations that their sensitive and confidential corporate data will be safe on Facebook's servers. The last thing a company wants is an employee "accidentally" posting something publically that they thought was being posted internally.
- Insufficient Search: One of the most important aspects of enterprise software is search. Employees need to be able to find the people, content and conversations they need to get their jobs done. While Facebook is steadily improving their search, it is still very cumbersome compared to most enterprise software. Contrast that to the type of analytics based search and filtering that companies like Microsoft and IBM are now offering, and Facebook has a lot of catching up to do. That said, Facebook's Graph Search has the potential to be quite powerful, so let's see where Facebook takes this in their At Work offering.
- Go To Market Channel: While many business today are using Facebook for marketing, the people who are paying for those Ads and managing Brand pages are not the same people that will be purchasing enterprise wide collaboration licenses. Facebook will need to find a way to reach people with buying authority, whether they reside in IT, LOB, or the executive office.
- Customer Support: Today Facebook support is primarily an online help knowledge base. They will need a much more robust support organization in order for organizations to feel comfortable using them for critical business communications.
- Pricing: Currently no pricing has been set, but if organizations are already paying for something like Microsoft Office 365 or Google Apps (both of which include social networking) then they will be weary of spending additional funds.
- Competition: Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that there are already so many collaboration solutions available. The list I maintain of social software vendors contains over 50 companies, and (sadly) it is very out of date. Many of these vendors have a decade or more experience providing collaboration solutions, so Facebook may have a considerable challenge on their hands winning deals against these vendors. On the other hand, even after a decade of tools being available the market is so fragmented and no one vendor dominates the space. So perhaps Facebook can capitalise on their name recognition and win a decent percentage of deals. Time will tell.
Overall, I support Facebook entering the business market. They have a product already used by a billion plus people at home, certainly some percentage of those people will be happy also using it for work. I think they chose the right name, "At Work" versus something like "Facebook for the Enterprise", as I don't predict any large organizations will adopt this. There are just too many other choices for them that are better suited to meet the needs or large companies. However, the millions of small businesses that don't have IT departments and may already be using Facebook as part of their marketing efforts may be quite happy using Facebook for secure employee collaboration.
My advice to Facebook, spend 2015 partnering with large enterprise software vendors so that you can announce integrations that prove the validity of Facebook at Work as a platform people can really use to get their jobs done.
Constellation Research realises that this is just the first release, and we look forward to working with Facebook and their business customers to help move their collaboration offerings forward.