Should collaboration vendors be worried about Facebook at Work's impending launch?

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed October 2, 2016
Facebook at Work formally launches in just a few days. But should enterprise collaboration vendors be worried? The short answer is - not yet. But based on early customer reviews, collaboration vendors should be responding with more urgency than I've seen. Here's why.

Even with my Facebook disdain, I've been watching Facebook at Work unfold with curiosity. Does Facebook's reputation as the ultimate water cooler in the sky - already blocked by many corporate firewalls -  hobble its enterprise pursuits? Or does Facebook's familiarity give it a foothold, a sneaky way into enterprise collaboration that Slack - or any other trendy tool - has yet to conquer?

We're about to find out more. On October 10, Facebook at Work will officially launch at a PR shindig in London - Facebook's first major product launch outside the U.S.

This isn't an alpha launch with a handful of unnamed customers. Facebook now counts 450 customers using Facebook at Work globally; its FAQ links to a number of case studies, from Club Med to Hootsuite to the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Facebook will face significant enterprise hurdles, from security to product integration. But the first obstacle is purging fears of co-mingled data from the personal Facebook. There is no data connection between the two products. Resisting the temptation to ease Facebook at Work sign up by leveraging personal Facebook data was the smart move.

The essence of Facebook is personal connections; the focus of Facebook at Work is group-based collaborations. The big similarity between the products is, of course, look and feel. That's what's prompted the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to complete a 100,000 employee Facebook at Work rollout by the end of 2016. Tech Republic quoted RBS Director of Design, Kevin Hanley:

[Hanley] said they've tried several ESN (Enterprise Social Networking) tools in the past but haven't found much success. Whereas with their Facebook at Work pilot program, they saw 90% adoption from those invited, similarly high rates for people continuing to use it, and interest from others within the bank about joining.

Ease of training due to the familiar interface has fueled adoption:

"It's something people are immediately familiar with, they can engage on day one," Hanley said.. And that's important, because Hanley said in the past when they've tried other tools, if the initial steps are clunky, then it's difficult to generate momentum around adoption.

In this piece on Hootsuite's experience with Facebook at Work, my diginomica colleague Phil Wainewright uncovered similar sentiments. Quoting Ambrosia Vertesi, VP of talent at Hootsuite:

If you know how to use Facebook you know how to use Facebook at Work... Internal collaboration tools can be extremely cumbersome on the organization to adopt the behavior and to feel safe and to understand why do I have to do this and build an intuitive environment. A lot more people use Facebook than they do Yammer or Chatter or those things.

Phil studies the collaboration space closely. So does he give Facebook at Work a shot?

Substitute the word ‘collaboration’ for ‘social’ and I’d have no argument with the notion this is going to be a crucial competency in our digitally connected enterprises. Will that function be delivered on today’s enterprise collaboration leaders, or will the enterprise gradually yield to Facebook for internal collaboration in the same way that it has often embraced the platform for external engagement? I have reservations about this prospect, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

In a January 2015 post, Facebook at Work – you in or out?, another diginomica colleague, Den Howlett, raised a host of questions for Facebook, including his contention that Facebook must charge for the product:

I’d like to see them charge because that then puts an onus on them to do the right thing for customers rather than what is right for Facebook and then try spin that to user goodness. It also means we have a proper market test for Facebook at Work.

As per its FAQ, Facebook still provides Facebook at Work for free, though one heading, Why should my company pay for Facebook at Work when Facebook is free? implies a paid version is a matter of time.

My take

For Facebook at Work to achieve even a modest level of enterprise adoption, it will have to pile up cases in heavily-regulated industries. Royal Bank of Scotland type references carry far more weight than tech or social media outfits.

These launch events have plenty of pomp, and sometimes, pretty decent snacks, but they ultimately mean little. It's not even clear if Facebook will be opening up Facebook at Work to general availability at the launch - I'm betting not. Right now, you can sign up and request access. If you do, you'll get this:


(I went ahead and signed diginomica up - I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't tell my team members, they might be miffed).

After you sign up, you get another reminder Facebook at Work is "starting out small," so I doubt enterprise collaboration vendors are quaking in their boots.  It's not clear at all that the enterprise needs a generic social layer. The best collaboration scenarios are contextual, tightly embedded into enterprise software by job function. Facebook at Work is years away from that.

But two things bother me: most enterprise collaboration tools ARE clunky. Adoption IS an issue. And they provide no easy way of involving external contributors. That's where solutions like Slack excel. I've been involved in a number of Slack projects that quickly pulled in internal and external team members. Granted, the data shared is an IT administrator's nightmare. But the projects persist.

I've been to several enterprise events where a show of hands indicated that very few folks - especially on the business side of the enterprise - have any clue what Slack is. Others have complained to me that Slack won't scale, the conversations aren't threaded, and when you add too many team members, it's pure chaos.

But even when it comes to Slack, the best example I've seen to date came from Acumatica, This was a CRM-focused use case, not just rolling out Slack willy-nilly:

Director of Product Management Gabriel Michaud demoed an Acumatica CRM "bot" which was basically listening in to a Slack channel between salespeople. When a customer account/record is mentioned in the chat, the bot immediately serves up the relevant record into the chat. Michaud told me since building this quick, experimental integration, he has been using the feature constantly.

But most products don't have that kind of role-based integration with Slack, or Facebook at Work, or any other lightweight tool. At best, they embed their own collaboration software. There is plenty of room for a solution as intuitive as developers find Slack, but on the business side. Facebook at Work just might fit that description. Facebook's overrated in many areas - but not mobile adoption, another angle to watch.

From the conversations I've had with enterprise vendors about the threat of Slack or Facebook at Work to their own collaboration tools, I've detected a lack of concern. The smart play is to make sure your collaboration platform links into all the social-tools-du-jour, providing the integration and security features they may be lacking.

Collaboration vendors should feel more urgency to achieve a superior ease of use. If they don't, they may get an unwanted lesson from the social upstarts  - which is what Facebook really is in this context, strange as it may seem to call them an upstart.

Anyone who has experienced the bitter taste of Facebook's indifference in their impotent feedback forums knows how much they have to learn about the kind of support - and, ironically, collaboration - that enterprise customers expect.

Facebook at Work claims it "drastically reduces the need for internal collaboration tools such as intranet, telephony systems, video conferencing and distribution lists." Those talking points are hardly unique or revolutionary. We'll see.