Most people don't want to be caught at work with Facebook open on their computers or smartphones, but that may change very soon. Facebook is working on a new social network for the workplace, called "Facebook at Work," that would pit the king of social media against more business-savvy stalwarts such as Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn, according to the Financial Times.
Social media has slowly percolated into business life, but for the most part it remains a separate function and utility during working hours. No company has successfully made the leap from consumer to enterprise and combined the two together at any scale even remotely similar to Facebook's 1.35 billion monthly users.
Facebook at Work will reportedly look and operate like the traditional version of Facebook, but it will allow users to chat with colleagues, connect with professional contacts and collaborate on documents in a space that's separate from their personal identities and activities. The product's success will almost certainly rest on Facebook's capability to convince CIOs and IT professionals that it can deliver these features in a secure, private and non-intrusive way.
Many businesses have no interest in seeing their employees' professional and personal lives mix any further. Ongoing user privacy concerns must also be resolved if Facebook wants to convince CIOs to embrace a tool many have purposely blocked on corporate networks for years.
Sameer Patel, senior vice president and general manager of enterprise collaboration and social software at SAP, welcomes Facebook's entry into the enterprise space and calls the move a significant step forward for in an industry that's seen many companies waste time and money on social tools that were quickly abandoned.
"Buying bloated, heavy software that promises to do what Facebook does doesn't make any sense," Patel says.
Polarization of the Social Enterprise
The social enterprise market is polarized around two specific use cases, Patel says. Lightweight communication software such as social feeds or instant messaging sit on one end of the spectrum, while deep business applications that enable large-scale collaboration and improve core functionalities including CRM, human resources and supply chain sit at the other.
Both models see high rates of adoption as more businesses and employees start to understand the complementary nature of both, according to Patel. Facebook could further validate that polarization by offering its lightweight tools and familiar user experience in a business setting.
"If your world requires you to toggle between internal and external, this becomes a natural place to do some of your fringe collaboration," Patel says.
Social enterprise tools that remain in the middle ground and that don't solve process problems or offer lightweight tools will be harder to justify, according to Patel. "There's been too much stuff in the middle of that paradigm that CIOs are just scratching their heads."
Rob Koplowitz, vice president and principal analyst with research firm Forrester, says that although Facebook appears to be following Google's lead into the enterprise, it's not clear how far it intends to go. Facebook's current capabilities could, however, already compete with some popular enterprise social offerings including Yammer, Chatter, IBM Connections, Lync or Cisco Jabber, he says.
From a Forrester research note written by Koplowitz:
"Facebook certainly has a familiar user experience that people love, and could blur the lines between employees and customers in a compelling way. They have the ability to drive enterprises toward new levels of customer activation. It's not clear how far they would want go with an offering like this. To fully compete in the enterprise requires deep and complex capabilities that aren't required in a consumer offering. It can also be a tough, low margin business where cost of sales can be high."
Facebook's move into the enterprise could also bolster its overall value. By elevating the role of its platform to an enterprise level, Facebook could become much more relevant and gain an understanding of the traditional 9-to-5 workday. "It's a third of your day that they don't know what you do," says Patel. "It's starting to learn about another dimension of your life that they would have never known.".
If Facebook makes significant inroads in the enterprise it could become the purest example of the successful consumerization of IT to date. Despite its sagging interest among teens and younger users, Facebook remains the one place that ties the entire digital life together, according to Patel.
"Do we really fret about how many people use electricity? No we don't, but we can't do without it," Patel says. Whether or not Facebook becomes a utility of global importance, if it unlocks an opportunity of such scale in the enterprise, it could dramatically alter the ways people work and play in the social world.