Facebook Where? The Enterprise Reacts To Facebook At Work

Facebook released a public pilot of its long-awaited enterprise social app called Facebook at Work today, but will businesses actually want to use it?

Enterprise Social as a category has been with us for almost a decade, with companies like Jive, Yammer (now part of Microsoft) and Socialcast (now part of VMware) trying hard to get organizations  to embrace social tools — often being sold ironically as “Facebook for the enterprise.”

Facebook is jumping feet-first into this existing market with all of its baggage and trying to show it can make the transition to a business product and all that entails. While the Facebook enterprise product has many advantages, there are also many unanswered questions.

Brent Leary, a managing partner of CRM Essentials who has been watching this space for years, says in spite of the benefits of using social tools in business, it has never really caught on in a big way — at least not the way many expected it to in the early days.

“I think we expected too much back then. Social [was] such a big cultural upheaval that many companies just didn’t want to deal with, and then didn’t know how to deal with,” he told TechCrunch.

“We’re past that one phase of trying to ignore it,” Leary said. And that’s where Facebook at Work could come in, but as Leary pointed out, it’s not a simple matter to bring social networking to work.

“Facebook could pull it off, but it’s hard to build a platform that meets the expectation for so many different kind of human interactions in the business context, as well as the personal one,” he said.

Facebook Has Some Distinct Advantages

“The enterprise social network space is still a crowded one, but Facebook brings a few truly unique attributes to the market, including having the world’s largest network of pre-registered users to better support external collaboration, as well as the most potent network effect in the social networking space,” says Dion Hinchcliffe, chief strategy officer at Adjuvi LLC and co-author of the book, Social Business by Design.

By virtue of its popularity, a work version of Facebook would have a decent shot at success, Hinchliffe says.

“I believe Facebook at Work has a good chance to become a new de facto collaboration channel, as long as they make it low-barrier enough to start using, offer the most straightforward path to business utility, while addressing the top concerns of companies, which will be privacy and security. If so, ‘let’s take this discussion onto Facebook’ could become a common phrase between co-workers,” he explained.

Indeed, many enterprise companies have been pleading for years for a business version of Facebook, says Brett Belding, director of mobile strategy at Mobileiron and formerly senior manager for IT mobility services at Cisco. “Enterprises have been clamoring for “Facebook for the Enterprise” for years. Now they (almost) have it,” he said.

Belding thinks this could also lead to some serious consolidation in the enterprise social space. “It’ll catalyze market consolidation. Competing against them will be difficult. Security may be their issue though.”

Transitioning To The Enterprise Is No Simple Matter

Facebook’s success in the enterprise is far from assured, security issues are one concern, and the company’s status as a newcomer may work against it..

“Facebook has a long way to go before it can be considered ready for the enterprise,” says Alastair Mitchell, chief executive at Facebook competitor, Huddle. “Yes, it may have gained the trust of nearly a billion daily active users worldwide, but it now has to win over enterprises and their IT departments before it can really start to see traction as a work tool,” Mitchell wrote in email to TechCrunch.

Mitchell pointed out that many businesses block Facebook because it’s considered “a productivity black hole” and he believes that security will be a major concern. “Facebook raises many data security and privacy concerns. The way in which the site stores, shares and handles consumer data has made headlines on a number of occasions, including its mood manipulation study and how customer data is used for targeted advertising,” Mitchell wrote.

Lawrence Hawes, an analyst at Dow Brook Advisory Services who follows the enterprise social space, pointed out the parallels between Facebook and Dropbox as both move from consumer to enterprise. “I’m struck by just how similar Facebook’s enterprise initiative is to Dropbox’s. Both are services designed for consumers, but also seeking to facilitate information sharing at work,” he said.

Facebook is going to need to add enterprise-grade security, reliability and other attributes that gain trust of evaluators and buyers, and it must transition from sole reliance on a freemium business model to one that emphasizes volume licensing, said Hawes. None of this is easy to do, and it’s even more difficult in a market with established players .

Long Time Coming

Nevertheless, this has been a long time coming, since Facebook has talked about an enterprise version in one guise or another for a while now. In fact as I wrote in an article last fall:

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz left Facebook several years ago to create Asana, an enterprise social tool. Since then, Facebook has also gotten more serious about using its tools to collaborate internally, especially its Groups product. Most employees are part of dozens of work-related, employee-only Groups for all their projects as well as company-wide stuff.

When asked today about the news, Moskovitz had this to say about Facebook at Work:

Asana believes email is no longer sufficient for communication at work, and that the world is clearly ready for the tools that come next. Facebook’s Work is sure to be a meaningful improvement, as Facebook Groups enables you to subscribe to exactly the conversations you want, rather than ending up on endless mailing-list threads. The next big question for companies moving beyond email is “How can we actually get more done?” Asana is focused on turning communication into action, and reorienting the software we use every day to be centered on the work itself.”

Let’s not forget, Salesforce.com tried this with Chatter and it didn’t really work out. Companies never really embraced Chatter in a big way. They may have simply introduced it too soon, says Leary.

For the short term, Work could be an easier sale for small and medium-sized businesses, said Rachel Happe, co-founder of The Community Roundtable, which helps companies become more social.

“I think Facebook has proven that they have an engaging interface and particularly SMB clients who don’t have access to a larger suite will be interested.” But she said limitations, particularly around content management and project management features could limit the interest of larger businesses.

Hawes believes if Facebook wants to succeed, it will need a laser focus on the enterprise. It can’t just dabble. “For me, the key to Facebook at Work’s success will be if [and] how the company restructures itself. Facebook at Work may have the existing, consumer-oriented Facebook as its foundation, but it absolutely needs to be designed, built, marketed, sold and serviced by a separate, enterprise-focused business unit.”