The phrase “Facebook at work” usually suggests people frittering away the day on the social network and not actually doing their jobs. But according to an anonymous source inside Facebook, the company is working on a way to put the social network into a more positive light in the office. It is building an at-work version of Facebook.
“We are making work more fun and efficient by building an at-work version of Facebook,” the source says. “We will touch code throughout the stack and on all platforms (web, iOS, Android, etc.).” The source, who refers it as “FB@Work”, says the effort is based in London.
What’s not clear is whether FB@Work is something being built as an internal enterprise communication platform, or whether there are ambitions to leverage Facebook to drive new business, by giving people a way to interface with the hundreds of millions of people who already use it to market their businesses and themselves — along the lines of LinkedIn.
A spokesperson for Facebook says the company doesn’t comment on rumor or speculation and has “nothing to add at this point.”
Using Facebook for internal communications already exists on a less formal basis.
“Everyone at Facebook uses Facebook for work,” one ex-Facebook employee tells us. “Most of their communication and planning is done though Messages and Groups. It would be a pretty natural thing to try to expose this way of using Facebook to get things done at the office to the rest of the world. It’s a really fast and efficient way to get things done.”
Essentially, from what I understand, at Facebook, every team has its own Group, and when they join and leave the company or change roles, they are added or removed from the relevant Groups. They have authentication security built into them and are synchronized with the company’s wider HR database.
This answer from 2012 to a Quora question, about what tools Facebookers use to communicate with each other, also details how Facebook uses Groups, email and chat; and how it has built a couple of tools internally — Pixelcloud for sharing and commenting on images (including new design prototypes), an in-house-built task management tool that’s compared to Asana — among other external platforms. Added to that these days is Quip, the mobile-first word-processing platform co-founded by Facebook’s former CTO Bret Taylor.
Tellingly, that Quora answer was penned by a Facebook engineer who is now based in London — where the “FB@Work” project is supposedly based. The engineering team in London, incidentally, is headed up by Lars Rasmussen, one of the two people behind Graph Search who relocated to London from Facebook’s HQ in 2013.
Before joining Facebook, Rasmussen developed Google Wave, a promising-looking collaboration product that was eventually discontinued when Google couldn’t get enough user traction.
External companies are also already using Facebook for work, too.
“Facebook Groups and Group Messaging have already been transformative for how we communicate and collaborate at Hearsay Social,” Clara Shih, the CEO of Hearsay Social, tells me. “As a social media software company, we know 100% of our employees are on Facebook. Rather than reinvent the wheel or ask employees to login to yet another system, we decided to create a private, unlisted Facebook Group to house many of our real-time company chats and conversations.”
At the same time, two other sources tell us that Facebook has been talking about launching a Facebook for enterprises product for three or four years already.
But the starts and stops of that effort speak both to the opportunities and challenges of doing so.
“I keep hearing rumors about this. This is one of the two projects that constantly get started and come close to being launched but have been cancelled at the last minute,” another ex-Facebooker tells us.
The other? An equally telling push against Facebook’s current demographic boundaries: a version of Facebook for under-13s. “They were both started more than three times, and fizzled out more than three times,” the source says.
With Facebook for minors, the privacy hurdles have been too high. With enterprise, the problem was different: “Facebook employees find using Facebook for work communication really useful, but it wasn’t clear whether it would serve a broader demand,” the source says.
At the same time, the idea of launching a whole new service raises questions about how this might fit into Facebook’s wider business.
The social network has made inroads here and there with revenue streams beyond advertising and into areas like virtual currency, e-commerce, and, allegedly, money transfers.
So the question would be whether Facebook could potentially monetise software services or simply offer them as useful but free tools, whose value is simply in getting people more engaged and spending more time on the social network. A business that does that, after all, may end up seeing the value of Facebook more and then translating that into other services, like buying ads.
“It’s hard for me to believe that this would be a significant revenue opportunity for Facebook,” one of the sources said. “They may charge but ultimately decide not to.”
On a different front, another person claims that Facebook has had wider plans for an enterprise product that might, say, compete more with the likes of LinkedIn.
“This has been on the list of things to do for three years but just has’t made it to the top of the list,” the source says. Tellingly, though, there are sticking points for such a service.
“Facebook is thought of as a community and place for friends, and LinkedIn feels more transactional,” the source says. “Facebook has to be careful not to lose that community appeal.”
There have already been moves at Facebook to build out ways of bridging CRM databases with the social network, but these appear to be mainly in the realm of advertising, as in the case of Custom Audience ads launched at a Salesforce Dreamforce conference in 2012.
Putting any skepticism aside, there are obvious opportunities if Facebook — now with over 1 billion users — did ever launch “FB@Work.”
“Both the ‘consumerization of IT’ trend as well as blurring of personal/professional online identity create opportunities for Facebook to play a role in enterprise services,” says Shih, who, in a previous role at Salesforce, was an early mover in the area of leveraging Facebook to build sales contacts with an app called Faceconnector.
“Certainly, the message at the most recent f8 of ‘move fast with stable infrastructure’ is a departure from the very anti-enterprise ‘move fast and break things’ motto of the past. Other consumer platforms, from Google Apps to LinkedIn, have built successful enterprise businesses and functionality, so perhaps Facebook will follow suit.”