Facebook May Punch In at Work

Facebook is preparing to plunge into the office collaboration and communication space with something it’s calling “Facebook At Work,” the Financial Times reported Monday.

The new offering will be similar to the consumer version of Facebook, but it will allow workers to chat with each other, connect with their professional contacts, and collaborate on projects, according to FT.

Such a move could pit Facebook against existing players providing some or all of those services to the enterprise — namely, Microsoft, Google and LinkedIn.

Facebook At Work users would be able to segregate their work account from their personal Facebook account, the paper noted.

Facebook employees have been using the At Work site internally for some time, it said, and the company has been working hard over the past year to bring it to market. Several companies are testing the service as the launch date approaches.

Lukewarm Interest

While collaborative enterprise services demand more of a provider than a consumer service does, Facebook could be up to the challenge.

“It’s a natural extension of what Facebook wants to do in the future,” said Brian Blau, a research director at Gartner.

“I’ve said for a long time that Facebook is going to be expanding into other areas, and it was only a matter of time before they looked into doing products like this,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

The Facebook At Work features, based on the FT report, appear to be on par with those offered by other social collaboration services, he noted — and that doesn’t bode well for Facebook.

“Those vendors have largely been unsuccessful in what they’re doing.” Blau observed.

“There’s been a tepid response to social collaboration across the board, and I don’t think that trend is going to change any time soon,” he added.

However, could Facebook, with its 1.35-billion user following, heat up interest in using social tools in the workplace?

Next-Gen Office

“For a long time, corporations have explored ways of using information technology to redesign work processes, but with limited success, in using tools like SharePoint, Yammer and others,” said Venkat N. Venkatraman, chairman of the information systems department at the Boston University School of Management.

“Those tools did not align with how we worked,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

Facebook already has established itself as a way to access updates, respond to requests through messages, and obtain updated documents and video, Venkatraman pointed out.

“So, why not spearhead a movement where the nature of work — which is inherently social — be based on how Facebook has influenced personal, social interactions?” he asked.

With At Work, Facebook could be making a play to be a leader in the next-generation office, noted Paul Kurnit, clinical professor of marketing at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business.

“The social space and the work space are so dynamic today that we’re constantly looking for the next thing in effective communication,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Facebook, through Facebook At Work, is saying they want a piece of that.”

Engagement Gold Mine

Facebook remains untested in the enterprise, observed Gartner’s Blau.

“There’s no evidence that Facebook-style consumer social networking is enterprise ready. It works well for consumers, but collaboration in the enterprise consists of a different set of features,” he said.

“People may feel more comfortable with Facebook At Work becauswe they’re familiar with Facebook,” he acknowledged, but “that doesn’t mean it’s a great feature set to enable workplace activities.”

Facebook’s entrance into the workplace could be slowed by its past problems with privacy.

“Facebook has had lingering privacy issues for a long time. It has made some efforts this past year to turn that around, but it’s going to take a while to fully turn that around,” Blau said.

“One of the biggest challenges for Facebook if it rolls out this product will be convincing businesses that things that happened on the consumer side won’t happen on the work side,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research.

“It’s one of the key hurdles they’ll have to overcome,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

If Facebook can crack the enterprise, however, it will pay dividends in an important metric for any online watering hole that sells advertising: engagement.

“Up to now, employers have been doing everything possible to get their employees to stop spending time on Facebook while they’re at work,” Dawson said.

“If you have Facebook At Work, all of sudden you have a model where people are encouraged to spend time on Facebook at work,” he pointed out, “which could dramatically increase the amount of time people spend on Facebook.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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