Facebook has begun a limited pilot of “Facebook At Work”, which will allow companies to use Facebook as a collaborative tool. While it’s an interesting move, there are a lot of hurdles Facebook will have to overcome if it wants to become a serious enterprise tool.
Right now, the Facebook At Work pilot is limited to a handful of test companies. While iOS and Android apps for the service have been made available on the App Store and Google Play, they’re essentially useless your company has been invited to register for the pilot. If that happens, you’ll have a separate Facebook work account, managed by your corporate IT department.
Facebook is essentially relying on a variant of the BYOD (bring your own device) phenomenon here, hoping that its popularity and massive user base will make it a viable option for businesses. The project is being headed up by Lars Rasmussen, who famously developed the technology that became Google Maps while based in Sydney. Rasmussen also headed up Google’s failed Wave project, which wanted to compete in the collaboration space but failed to gain much popularity due to its confusing interface and frequent bugs.
Facebook often experiments with new products (and has enough spare cash to do so with minimal risk). However, there are a lot of roadblocks that will need to be overcome before it can seriously compete in what’s already a very crowded and competitive market for collaboration tools. Leaving aside the presence of well-established players like Microsoft’s Yammer, Google’s Apps suite and Salesforce.com, plus growing startups like Slack, Facebook For Business has some unique problems of its own.
For starters, no-one uses Facebook because it has especially awesome collaboration tools. The features it offers — commenting on messages left by others and setting up individual groups — already exist in virtually all rival products.
What makes Facebook “sticky” is the fact that (almost) everybody uses it, so you can easily link up with people that matter to you. In a corporate context, that’s essentially irrelevant: the only people you’ll be able to chat with via your work Facebook identity will be your colleagues, and you already know who they are. Facebook makes this quite clear on the help page for the service: “Your work account is only visible to people at your company and is separate from your personal account.”
Secondly, there’s a big trust barrier to overcome in terms of privacy and features. Facebook is infamous for burying its privacy controls, setting defaults that make posts public and making it hard to opt out of your status updates and likes being used in ads. Why would you want to trust a company with that approach with your own business data?
Facebook clearly recognises this as an issue, since it devotes quite a bit of space to it on the help page:
When you share something from your work account, you can share it with everyone at your company or make it only visible to you by selecting the Only Me option. Posts set to Only Me won’t appear in your co-workers’ News Feeds unless you tag them in the post. If you share something with everyone at your company, anyone with a work account at your company can see it, but it isn’t visible to people outside of your company.
There’s also another challenge for Facebook here: if it does start offering decent and nuanced privacy options that can be easily managed — which is what business customers are going to want — people will start speculating about why those options aren’t available for the general public.
A related issue is that Facebook often rolls out interface changes unannounced, usually resulting in howls of protest. That’s not a viable option for corporate users, where changes have to be announced in advance so training can be managed.
The third problem is that the trial is extremely limited in scope, and is only available to US customers. Facebook has often taken a US-only approach to launches (Facebook Graph is one obvious example). However, it’s dangerous to assume that approaches to collaboration are the same the world over.
A fourth issue for businesses is that adopting Facebook At Work means handing off control of passwords to Facebook. Again from the help page:
When you set up your work account, you’ll be able to connect it to your personal account. This lets you switch between the 2 accounts while using the same username and password for both. Your username and password aren’t shared with your employer.
This might be reassuring for individuals, but it also means businesses can’t enforce their own password policies. Password reset requests are already a major nuisance for IT pros; when someone forgets their password, telling them to sort it out via Facebook isn’t going to make the help desk any more popular.
The final big unanswered question about all this is how will Facebook charge for this? Free pilots aren’t unusual, but ultimately Facebook needs to make money. It does that by selling targeted advertising based on knowledge of individual habits — but no business is going to voluntarily sign up to give away corporate information. Ads won’t work here. Offering a subscription service (the model which most enterprise software is adopting) would represent a big culture shift for Facebook.
Evolve is a regular column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.