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Oxfam rolls out Workplace by Facebook to eliminate costly travel

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 23, 2016
Global charity Oxfam is “delighting” its users with Facebook Workplace, according to COO Jim Daniell.

Facebook announced the general availability of its enterprise ready communications platform - Workplace - earlier this month, to much furore.

There are a number of reasons for the buzz. One - it’s Facebook. Everything the social network does attracts some degree of attention. Secondly, it’s very rare to see a consumer technology company make such a strong play for the business market. Thirdly, the enterprise communications tools market is already very populated, with Jive, Yammer, Slack, Quip, Sharepoint, Huddle - to name a few - all fighting it out.

Should these business ready platforms be concerned about Facebook as an entrant? In my view, yes they should. Why? Facebook already has over 1 billion users globally that know how to use its platform. One of the biggest barriers to enterprise-wide collaboration is actually getting employees to use the tool provided. We’ve covered many a case study on how companies struggle with uptake and have comprehensive strategies around encouraging collaboration.

If a buyer believes this challenge could be minimised by providing a tool that it knows employees LIKE using, that’s incredibly tempting.

So when I got the chance to speak to global charity Oxfam - a Workplace by Facebook beta user - on its use of the platform, I jumped at the chance. Oxfam is interesting because it is already pulling together quite a comprehensive stack of cloud technologies, that it hopes will help it better run a modern, digital organisation. This is largely being driven by its global reach and its diverse set of requirements.

I spoke to Oxfam America COO Jim Danniell about the rollout of Workplace. He explained:

We have 18 Oxfams scattered around the world. When you have 18 separate entities, each with their own set of collaboration tools, their own intranets, their own file shares, their own preferred cloud tools, it becomes a mess. Think about trying to respond to an emergency like the Nepal earthquake, and people not being able to share basic things. You’re left with one thing, which is trying to email things around, which is just a terrible way of working.

Fast forward to several years ago, we began a process of looking at creating a unified collaboration stack to integrate all Oxfam employees worldwide. Regardless of where they work. And we began very basic. We started with Box at the bottom, just for basic file sharing. That turned out to be pretty good collaboration around sharing and editing files.

We then subsequently realised we needed unified intranet for standard business day to day, somewhat permanent archives. Then when Facebook approached us and said they were working on something, and would we be interested in beta testing it - we said yes.

What we quickly discovered is that on top of the file sharing and the intranet, people of a certain age really wanted to have a social collaboration space for work. Separate from the outside. So it fitted perfectly into the stack.

Adding Facebook to the mix

Facebook Workplace
Workplace by Facebook

So, the Oxfam stack as it currently stands includes Box for file sharing, a Drupal based instance of common intranets in the middle and then Workplace by Facebook on top - all of which is then integrated with Okta, which solves the problem of single sign-on and identity for employees.

But how well is Facebook integrating with enterprise apps? I’ve read mixed things online about the social network’s ability to open up its APIs in the business world. However, thus far, Daniell and Oxfam have not found this to be a problem. He said :

The thing that blew me away, when we took a look at the out of the box toolset from Facebook, we said some of these things we have in here are counter to how we want users to use their information. For example, we don’t want a separate file share inside of Facebook - we need to use Box. So they launched integration with Box very quickly. You don’t expect that from a large organisation, but they were very quick to understand that they need to allow a business to figure out which elements of the cloud stack would integrate.

When using Office365 you can save to your computer, or your favourite cloud repository, so you can save to Box. Once they’re saved into Box, they can be seen directly within the Drupal-based intranet or seen directly in Facebook.

Daniell explained that Workplace should enable Oxfam to save money on bringing its people together to collaborate - where they can now do it in a familiar online workspace. He said:

The funny thing is that people have been talking about this technology as a way to tear down barriers between groups within an organisation. We have that problem, but we also have a slightly different problem. If you’re working at Oxfam you’re scattered all over the world. So you feel very distant at times. So if you’re sitting in Maputo in Mozambique and you’re an expert in gender, there is a whole community of experts around gender and gender related issues scattered all over the world. How do they find and see each other? How do they interact with each other?

Historically we have had to spend a lot of money to fly people together, to bring them into a space to share their best practices and knowledge. Suddenly what’s happening is that this digital closeness is starting to occur, people are starting to feel like they are down the end of the digital corridor.

The familiarity factor

As I noted above, Facebook may have an edge in selling to the enterprise - if it can overcome the barrier of being perceived as a consumer tool - because it knows that people like using its platform. It will not have to convince a buyer that Workplace by Facebook is usable, because most employees will already be using Facebook daily.

Daniell agrees that this was a big driver for Oxfam. He said:

At the end of the day, if you think about total cost of ownership, it’s the familiarity with the application. All of these tools are excellent - there is an endless list of digital tools that are easy to use and excellent - but every single one of them has a slight learning curve. If you’re not familiar with it, there’s that initial reluctance to say ‘oh boy, I’ve got to learn another tool now’.

When you’re walking into a Facebook space, you’re walking into a space where there’s already over a billion users on the traditional Facebook platform for consumers. And so, to them it’s incredibly familiar. At the end of the day, you’ve got to make it as easy as possible for the user. You want to delight users, right? You don’t hear that too often, where the company is rolling out a new product and users cheer. They are literally delighted.

The rollout

Oxfam began trialling the product in November and began rolling it out across the organisation in

February. Daniell said that this was made simpler by the fact that the charity uses Okta for single sign-on and integration management.

Okta has enabled Oxfam employees to gain access to the entire cloud collaboration stack, as well as enable Oxfam to provision access to new applications, such as Workplace, very quickly. Daniell explained:

If there’s one thing that drives people crazy, is that they have all these tools and they sort of know how to navigate to them. And they tap in their user name and password, and it says not recognised. You can’t even get in the front door. That is your first step to making an impression. That has been one of our key challenges. I’ve talked to people at Oxfam over the years about how to use tools like password managers, to help keep track. When you’re in the business world you don’t have time to do this, you don’t have time to look up a user name and password.

When we used Okta to link everything to hook up to Box, we suddenly had a single unified point where every single user name and password, for every single person was stored in one place. We could not have launched Workplace by Facebook without Okta - it provided easy integration, we could use the same username and password you use every day, but it also provided provisioning tools to automatically provision the account based on your profile.

We already had over 4,000 users on Box, so we automatically provisioned all of the Box users with Facebook accounts to get them going with their first phase of this. We live in a world where we are forever going to be adding and deleting elements to our cloud stack - keeping track of your username and password for these cloud services is probably the key element to seamlessly integrating multiple apps.

My take

I like the idea of Workplace by Facebook, but I realise it doesn’t come without its challenges. The main one being whether or not Facebook has taken the enterprise security and data management capabilities as seriously as it should - this is something I need to look into further but for now the Okta integration will make sense to many companies that have cloud centric IT strategies. From Oxfam’s perspective, it is now not worried so much about uptake, but more concerned about general collaboration challenges - such as curating and managing communities.

One to keep an eye on.

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