Social Enterprise

Facebook at Work: Here's what you need to know

If the social network decides to make its foray into the enterprise world, here's what it needs to do.

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Image: CNET

The phrase "Facebook at work" might take on a new meaning — one that has less to do with procrastination and cat pictures.

Financial Times reported earlier in the week that Facebook's rumored product, Facebook at Work, would be aimed at the enterprise and offer capabilities such as newsfeeds, groups, chat, and document collaboration for internal use in businesses. Facebook at Work profiles would be entirely separate from personal Facebook accounts.

While concrete details are scarce, there's already a solidifying view of the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges Facebook will have to contend with should it formally introduce such a product.

Andrew Jones, industry analyst for Altimeter Group, sees one early question as whether the service will be paid or ad supported. If Facebook is ad supported, adoption could go faster. The entrance into the B2B arena could place them up against LinkedIn, which has

been the dominant layer in that space, Jones said.

For many, the idea of this move isn't shocking.

"Facebook cannot ignore a $300 plus billion market, and has the talent and resources to be successful in that new arena," said Harmeda technology and strategy partner Max Dufour, who also works as an interim CIO for mid-sized businesses and some Fortune 500 companies.

Money aside, Mike Gotta, research vice president at Gartner, said the expansion aligns with a larger movement.

"There is an overall consumerization trend and there is a belief that providing employees with tools they use everyday in their personal lives can improve their productivity when they can use the same tools within the workplace," he said.

For Sameer Patel, SAP's senior vice president of enterprise social products, who helped introduce SAP's social collaboration tool Jam, the key thing to remember is that Facebook is a media company. At many companies, Facebook is banned or restricted, meaning those are hours of the day when Facebook doesn't have as easy access to its users.

"If Facebook can start to understand what we do from 9 to 5 when they're shut out, that's a ton of market intelligence on you and me that any media company would want to find a way to get at," Patel said.

As far as how Facebook could affect the current market, Patel said it could sit somewhere between the very lightweight social enterprise products that offer things like instant messaging, and the products built for integration in business processes. He thinks it might drive clarity for buyers, or make it easier for them to determine what they need and which tools could meet that need,given that he sees those ends of the spectrum as being polarized in the market.

"From an industry standpoint, anything that sits in the middle is going to stand out," he said, "customers will wonder 'Do I need to pay a lot of money for this bloated software when really what I want is instant messenger?'"

But before businesses start asking those questions, there are a few others Facebook will likely have to address — mainly issues regarding privacy and security.

Jones said that the separate accounts could be one way of assuaging privacy concerns.

"Organizations in regulated industries have very specific requirements when deploying communications, collaboration, and content technologies, Facebook would have to address those requirements directly or through partnerships," Gotta said.

In the wake of stories like Facebook manipulating users' newsfeeds to sway emotions, there's a baseline credibility that will have to be established for the enterprise world to feel comfortable using the tool.

And increasingly this might not even be a problem for just Facebook.

"The anxiety employees have in their consumer experience is already coming into play as traditional enterprise vendors deploy new technologies that mimic the tracking capabilities people see in the consumer world. All vendors, not just Facebook, need to address transparency and ethical aspects of their algorithms and monitoring techniques," Gotta said.

Gartner research director Larry Cannell said Facebook will have to forge trust with IT in particular — beyond security, privacy, and compliance.

"IT professionals select their partners assuming their products will continue to evolve and will help IT solve the enterprise's problems (such as security, privacy, compliance, but also adoption and many other challenges) together. To gain any significant traction in enterprises, Facebook needs to make IT their partner. This is new for them," he said.

Another potential challenge Dufour sees could be adjusting to the expectations of the enterprise world. In the consumer market, joining a network like Facebook for free comes with a certain assumption that support or advanced features will be minimal.

"Enterprise users are more demanding and can actually complain about or reject a free product which does not meet expectations," he said.

On the flip side, the consensus seemed to be that the strongest asset Facebook has going in is familiarity.

Theoretically, this would be a tool that professionals would already know how to use. Jones said perhaps if users get used to their professional Facebook personas, what's to stop them from starting to use it more like LinkedIn?

Plus, Cannell said, many current tools are already taking Facebook's lead in terms of functionality, like news feeds, and standards, like Open Graph.

"Facebook could make the case that digital life trumps digital work — that employees are better off using familiar tools and that Facebook will draw enough attention from partners and third-party ISVs to fill gaps in security, compliance and other areas where specific business functionality is needed," Gotta said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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