Facebook at Work eyes LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft...everybody

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett November 17, 2014
The news that Facebook at Work for enterprise users will be coming to a desktop/mobile near you in a few months creates fresh tensions in the attention economy.

According to the FT (paywall) and others, Facebook plans to deliver 'Facebook at Work' a collaborative offering aimed at the enterprise. Some reports claim that it is already being tested by up to 8,000 users at Facebook with other undisclosed companies also testing the solution.

Business Insider posted a story that took a humorous turn at how Facebook at Work was used by facilities management and which was prankstered along the way. Ho hum.

Right now, details are thin in the ground although many reports say that internally. Facebookers have been using a collection of features that amount to what Facebook at Work could look like. Think file sharing (although that is being downplayed in some reports,) chat, messaging, groups.

This is all well and good and should not surprise. I've said for years that the market for consumer products may be huge by volume but is limited by value and that while enterprise might be 'boring' in the eyes of the ADD afflicted digerati, that's where money is made and where really interesting stuff happens. The question then comes, can Facebook create an application that governance laden corporations will buy into?

There is a long history of Facebook being banned from use in corporate environments, often cast as a time waster, much to the chagrin of social media wonks. Those same corps have a point. As Facebook increases in popularity, it can easily become a time sink. Having said that, judicious use by the likes of Robert Scoble have demonstrated that it can be an extremely powerful research tool.

Right now, a tiny fraction of even the most avid Facebook users consider Facebook in those terms yet I can easily imagine marketing departments using its curation features as a way of keeping abreast of trends and so deploying as a standalone adjunct tool. How that crosses over from the current, public Facebook into Facebook at Work is unknown but that alone represents good value.

The ever discussed topics of privacy and security are bound to loom large and here, it is understood that Facebook plans to stand up a separate instance of its solution on dedicated servers, rather than co-mingling with the main server farms. That won't be enough to persuade CTOs who will want assurances about how Facebook plans to protect corporate data from wide ranging data sweeps.

In some cases, it will be hard to persuade those who believe passing data over to Facebook is the equivalent of invoking the wrath of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

And then there is the evergreen topic of collaboration as a much talked about a topic that has struggled to reach critical mass as a technology driven method of working. This, I think, is the biggest barrier made just that tad more difficult by the fact that right now, Facebook is not part of any business process framework that turns content into actions with the exception of marketing automation in largely B2C environments. That's where Chatter, Jam and Yammer play better. If Facebook can successfully join the dots between content, context and process then they are in with a fighting chance.

Conversely, Facebook's rich functional depth plus native and well integrated mobile messaging capability could be competitive in a market that is showing signs of life. If they've done the collaborative piece well internally - and we have to assume that to be true or people wouldn't use it - then there has to be a strong case for at least reviewing what will be on offer.

Facebook also needs to ensure that role based access methods are included within the offering so that users can create and dissolve interest groups. Those are really 'add' and 'unfriend' capabilities taken to an enterprise level but they do require a level of engineering that we have not seen from Facebook, which prefers the fully open graph metaphor.

In taking this step, Facebook has one huge advantage over other networks - scale. With more than 1.3 billion users worldwide, it has a large inbuilt market to woo. If past behaviors are anything to go by, there is always the potential for stealth adoption. That's what happened with LinkedIn, an obvious competitor and one which took a hit once the Facebook at Work news became public. Quite how LinkedIn is impacted is a bit of a mystery to me although we see plenty of evidence that LinkedIn is a primary sharing channel for our content that regularly outperforms other networks.

The main risk is that Facebook falls into the trap of adding in advertising as the way to support the offering rather than go the subscription route. Going the subscription route makes much more sense to an enterprise buyer and to the SME audience which could well constitute the early adopter cohort. It's understood the current iteration does not include ads.

Assuming Facebook gets this out the door then there is an interesting side play: what do all those companies that have been touting 'Facebook for Enterprise' do about their marketing? Now there's a disruptive thought...

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