Six years Later, Facebook at Work is still a non-starter

A few companies have been using Facebook at work for years. Here's why it still hasn't caught on.

Facebook grad
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Way back in 2009, a few pioneering companies (notably an outfit called Serena Software) made headlines when it began using a brash, consumer-oriented social networking service called Facebook to replace its boring, stodgy corporate intranets. (Remember "intranets?" Nah, me neither.)

The practice got a lot of attention at the time (including from me), but obviously never caught on. Instead, the whole concept of an intranet kind of faded away, replaced by a collection of chat programs, wikis, shared documents, project management services, and a host of other solutions.

Everything old is new again

But last week, Facebook—now the dominant social network on the planet with well over a billion users—announced a free new service called Facebook at Work designed to do pretty much what companies like Serena Software were doing six years ago: replace the corporate intranet, or at least replace some of how employees interact with each other and share information and documents.

So will the new service catch on? At least one prominent company is already using it (Facebook, natch) and the service has been tested by some undisclosed partners, but there hasn't been a lot of info about others yet. CIO's Matt Kapko says companies should be skeptical, and frankly so am I.

Back in 2009, here's what I thought the advantages of using Facebook at work, especially for smaller companies:

  1. It's free!
  2. Employees already know how to use it.
  3. It's available on a wide variety of platforms.
  4. There are a large number of add-on features and capabilities available for it.
  5. It demonstrates a commitment to employees to improve the quality of workplace interaction.
  6. It's a nod toward the needs of younger employees.
  7. It can help foster a more open, more modern corporate culture.
  8. It draws in resumes from Web-aware employment candidates.
  9. It can attract media attention.
  10. Did I mention it's free?

Those things are all still true, to a point. Facebook obviously knows a lot about personal and social interactions and user interfaces, but that's not necessarily the same as what businesses need.

'Free' is a bug, not a feature

Ironically, I'm worried that what I once saw as one of the biggest advantages of using Facebook at work—the fact that it's free—could turn out to be a big problem for serious corporate users. Relying on a free service could save some money up front, but doesn't inspire a lot of confidence around security, support, and future development of critical features. According to Kapko, for example, the service doesn't currently include "document-sharing tools or enterprise-class messaging."

It's a matter of commitment

If Facebook really wants to play in this space, it needs to charge (at least something) for its service, and back it up with committed support and a roadmap for future development to meet current and evolving enterprise needs. Facebook could certainly do that if it wanted to, but serving demanding enterprise customers is not an area where the company has much experience.

Unless Facebook at Work can demonstrate that it can address those questions, not to mention show that Facebook's algorithms—instead of competing products' like Yammer, Chatter, IBM Connections, Lync or Cisco Jabber that use workgroup channels and other mechanisms—can reduce the "noise" that Facebook’s consumer users like to complain about so much.

Facebook has more than enough money and smarts to make Facebook at Work a serious contender in the enterprise—if it really, really wants to. The real question is how committed Facebook will be to serving a new market with different rules, different customers, and different competitors. Until Facebook demonstrates that it's in this new business for the long haul, prudent companies will remain wary of dipping their toes into Facebook at Work.

On the other hand, free products like Facebook at Work are tailor made for shadow IT adoption, whether companies officially support them or not. Like it or not, those unauthorized implementations could tell the tale of whether Facebook at Work turns out to be a viable solution.

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