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With Work, Facebook Aims to Consolidate All of Our Social Engagement (and Data) Under One Platform

The battle for being social in the enterprise has heated up once again. Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it was launching a new offering specifically for businesses. Called Work, it’s intended to close the gap between the personal and the professional identities people have on the social network. With the introduction of both a mobile and desktop application, Facebook seeks to connect the next 5 billion people, not only for those around the world in under-served countries, but also in a whole new segment: within the workplace.

Until now, Facebook had been primarily an external communication tool for the enterprise. Corporate personalities, marketers/advertisers, and community managers have been using the social network for the past decade to interact with their constituents, whether that’s through Pages, Events, or advertising. But Work will further Facebook’s role to now foster internal communications among colleagues. Yes, it’s going to be an Enterprise Social Network (ESN).

A new rival for Slack, Chatter, and Yammer

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Naturally, once the news of Facebook Work came out, there was a slew of comparisons to incumbent services out there, namely Salesforce Chatter, Microsoft’s Yammer, and Slack. Altimeter Group’s Charlene Li believes that while there are many ESNs out in the marketplace, Work has a legitimate opportunity to quickly establish itself as the de facto platform of choice:

“Facebook’s 1.35 [billion] user base gives this ‘test’ real firepower. This instantly makes it a whale in an enterprise collaboration marketplace crowded with minnows. Even the de facto business social network, LinkedIn, has less than 25% of Facebook’s audience at 323 [million] active users and can’t be used for effective workplace collaboration. Enterprises could potentially have a hard time keeping employees on Chatter, Yammer, or other internal social networks when the Facebook interface is already so familiar and functional. In other words, how much do you really have to train your employees to use something that comes naturally to them?”

Indeed, Facebook has certainly captured the attention of employees. After all, many of the 1.35 billion users are in the workforce — and they’re using it to communicate with their friends and family while in the workplace. And by using something familiar to them, you are reducing the learning curve need to adopt the technology.

Let’s face it: you’re already using Facebook at work and if companies are trying to implement an ESN with Facebook-like features, then why not use the original tool that everyone already knows? In doing so, it’ll help consolidate the number of tools and platforms your team will have to reconcile later on. In more contemporary firms, employees have to deal with software like Google Docs, Skype, Dropbox, and dozens of others. Altimeter Group’s Jon Cifuentes thinks that we’re being overwhelmed:

“On average, we’re using close to 30 apps per month on our personal smartphones alone, and we’ve brought that behavior straight into the enterprise. We’re throwing tools at tasks instead of rethinking how or why we communicate the way we do across so many channels. The ‘consumer’ enterprise has evolved to an ‘appified’ one.

Here’s a key item we tend to forget: Form follows function. Behavior precedes tool. This ideal framework is precisely why a one year old chat app (Slack) is worth a billion bucks. Slack didn’t try and displace one behavior (email and workplace communication) for an entirely new one. Rather, it made existing behaviors more efficient than the norm, such as cutting down the whopping 30% of the workday we spend reading and receiving emails.”

Work is being positioned as the one platform to help companies consolidate their tools to make it easier for employees. Not only will there need to be one less service to check, but also the on-boarding process is easier as users can leverage their existing Facebook credentials (or have the option to generate a new professional profile).

But is it too little too late?

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Last year, on the eve of Facebook’s 10th anniversary, I interviewed Salesforce’s Vice President for Strategic Research Peter Coffee who provided me with a telling anecdote about Salesforce’s view of the social network. He said that Facebook managed to create a huge expectation with customers that companies can be social and during a meeting between CEO Marc Benioff and his senior managers, the team was asked who was on the social network. A “small fraction” raised their hands and a dismayed Benioff instructed everyone else to sign up for an account in order to get acquainted with it — this would be the next wave of innovation in the enterprise, which helped pave the way for the eventual introduction of Chatter.

It’s taken Facebook a long time to get to this place, but it’s a bit revolutionary for a social network primarily focused on consumers dive into the enterprise. It’s certainly further distancing itself from anything Myspace, Friendster, and Google+ could ever do. But is it too little too late? Large enterprises are already using a plethora of existing ESNs such as Yammer, ChatterJive, Tibbr, SocialCast, and Convo, so would there be a compelling selling point aside from the desire to consolidate platforms?

But is the entry of Facebook almost akin to Apple dominating a new segment just because of its reputation? It doesn’t seem to be that way — yes, there may be some cause for concern, but for companies like Slack, it’s just another competitor. In fact, Slack CEO and co-founder Stewart Butterfield told my old colleagues at The Next Web that he’s not worried:

“The brand ‘Facebook’ is not, I think, well suited to being used for work. The product sounds like it might be really useful at a really large company. Obviously, if it’s a seven person company, there’s not much point in creating a profile. But if it’s a 100,000 person company, then there’s certainly some value in having that.

When I think about our larger customers, the bigger corporations and large startups – Comcast, Sony or Dell say or Airbnb and Stripe – it’s hard to imagine the teams at those companies opting to use Facebook At Work instead.”

Maybe this won’t go according to plan…

The opportunity

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What perhaps makes Work the most interesting is the mobile focus and the incredible opportunity for growth. Facebook has certainly the credentials needed to consider itself to be not only mobile-first, but mobile-best. Work will be available both as an iOS and Android app and theoretically will offer employees the standard social network features we’ve all come to expect, such as notifications, status updates/News Feeds, sharing of photos and documents, and more. However, that’s pretty much it — it’s a basic offering that you might expect from other services.

However, looking forward into the future, there’s more potential for it, especially with third-party integrations. Right now it’s not possible, but Facebook’s engineering director Lars Rasmussen told TechCrunch that “we’ve disabled the Platform so the APIs that third parties work with are not there, but we are keen to turn it back on. Hopefully in the future other enterprise tools will integrate with Facebook at Work.”

Third-party integrations are essential to Work’s success. Without it, it’s just a professional version of Facebook without any flair. But once the platform and API opens up, one advantage that Work will have is the incredible amount of resources through Parse, the platform-as-a-service company that Facebook acquired in 2013. There’s certainly an army of developers who have extensive experience building apps around Facebook so the ecosystem isn’t a weak one — it’ll definitely rival any ecosystem competitors might have. And with Facebook’s annual f8 developer conference coming up at the end of March, it wouldn’t be surprising to see if the company formally unveils more details about Work for developers and provides additional tools and resources — perhaps bringing in support for WhatsApp chatting for the enterprise or even Instagram?

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Earlier, I mentioned that Facebook Work would bring in the capability of internal communications within the social network. While functioning as an ESN, Work can also serve as an employee advocacy offering as well, effectively combining services that were offered by multiple companies before. So while you can communicate with your coworkers, if your community manager has a conversation or comment posted on the company’s Page, it can be directed to the proper individual for a response — perhaps almost similar to the likes of Addvocate. Or perhaps there’s some news, shareable content, or campaign that you want to promote and would like to have coworkers on Facebook evangelize it — it could theoretically be done through Work.

The age of professional mobile-first ESNs isn’t new. In fact, Tomfoolery happened to be one of the most recent companies to attempt it. Ultimately that company got acquired by Yahoo in 2014. Will Facebook have better luck?

Privacy concerns

As this is Facebook, one big thing people will be concerned about and will lead them to shy away from using Work is concern over who owns their data and its privacy. Enterprises may not wish to go this route over fear that even communications between colleagues would violate their IT standards. The company hasn’t publicly commented about this issue, but I’m certain that it’ll say that user privacy is important to it. What’s more, there’s a chance that there will be a freemium model, meaning that with the cheapest plans, it’ll be supported by ads, probably targeted towards not only the content posted, but also the interests and demographics of the specific user, along with the background around the company.

It’s certainly way too early to determine whether the above issues will dissuade enterprises from giving Work more than a glance. After about a few months, we should have a better understanding of the type of users and companies integrating with this ESN, as well as what data is being provided and the amount of engagement. As it stands right now, the king of social networks has decided to expand to the business world and tackle a new vertical in its quest to tap an additional 5 billion people. But with a lot of competition already in the marketplace, can Facebook really use its dominance to get people to consolidate their lives into one single platform?

Photo credit: Facebook website via Simon/pixabay; Facebook employees via Dan Fletcher/VentureBeat, employee advocacy graphic via inkhuman

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