by Tony Byrne

Taking a critical look at Workplace by Facebook

Jun 01, 2017
Digital TransformationInternetIT Leadership

Does the Facebook experience work at work?

Amid the emergence of enterprise social networking (ESN) platforms over the past decade, creating a “Facebook-in-the-enterprise” became a kind of short-hand exhortation by vendors and customer aspirants alike: Could we recreate the success of the world’s largest social network within the internal confines of an organization?

Now that Workplace by Facebook (formerly Facebook At Work) has more than a year under its belt, we can begin to answer that question. Some customers have indeed found success with the platform, but Real Story Group’s evaluation of Workplace finds that what Facebook brings to enterprise social-collaboration is mostly a recognized brand name (you can download the evaluation here). Familiarity can help with initial adoption, but improving employee effectiveness and engagement over the long run may require more than what Workplace—or any other ESN—can offer.

A competitive market

Officially launched last October, Workplace was greeted with great excitement even before it became generally available. Like Google, Facebook tends to get a bit of a pass among my industry analyst brethren. Perhaps we hope those big consumer platforms will finally fulfill all the promises we keep making about the “consumerization” of enterprise technology. You the enterprise customer should take a more practical view, and assess Workplace with the same tough, critical eye as you would any of its competitors.

And to be sure, Facebook has many competitors. Workplace enters a relatively mature market with several large and ESN vendors—including the likes of IBM, Microsoft, Jive and TIBCO, among others.

Workplace strengths

After debriefing a range of early enterprise customers, we can cite true strengths in the platform.

  • A familiar social networking and conversation environment can reduce the need for initial training
  • Live Video is a differentiating feature, particularly if your organization has no alternative platform for this service
  • Facebook’s heritage of scalable systems could address performance concerns in globally distributed enterprises
  • The mobile client works well
  • Workplace has good SSO support
  • It’s relatively low-cost, especially compared to standalone alternatives

Note that Workplace comes in two editions: Standard (with restricted features but free) and Premium (paid, with pricing based on monthly active users). Premium starts at $3 per user per month for the first 1000 users, $2/month for the next 9000 users and $1/month for any users beyond that.

Facebook is hosting a complimentary trial period for the premium version until the end of September 2017. Meanwhile, the service remains free for nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Platform weaknesses

So what’s not to like? A fair bit, depending on your needs.

The first thing that stands out is the comparatively underdeveloped feature set, which can reduce the value and applicability of the platform:

  • Workplace is a sub-par environment for real-time interaction, since it lacks status messages and, like the consumer version, chat remains weak.
  • The platform lacks community management features at a time when actively facilitated communities are increasingly recognized as the tip of the enterprise social spear.
  • Rudimentary management features (such as analytics and life cycle management) reduce your scope for administration.

The biggest surprise here, though is the shockingly thin profile and networking services in Workplace. You can search your colleagues only by their names and at this writing there’s no organization-wide directory of people. This constrains making connections with experts outside of your immediate orbit and can become almost a non-starter for larger enterprises that rely on an ESN for expertise location. Meanwhile, external interaction feels contrived and limited only to those with a Workplace account through their organization.

What about collaboration

Facebook’s dearth of finished applications reduces its suitability for collaboration-oriented scenarios. To be sure, other ESN tools can feel thin here, too, but at a time when knowledge workers want to more fluidly combine “talk” and “do,” collaboration becomes an important consideration.

facebook workplace scenario fit Real Story Group

Across eleven canonical social-collaboration use cases, Workplace really excels at just one.

In the enterprise, collaboration tends to revolve around files and groups, so let’s look at both. In Workplace you can add files to posts and groups, but you cannot add multiple attachments to one post. In addition, there are no hierarchies or sub-folders. The experience can get messy quickly as the number of files increases.

Fortunately, Facebook has announced integrations for file sharing services (Box, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and Google), but it remains unclear how those repositories will get exposed, as opposed to just simplifying attachments.

Workplace groups support conversations around a topic, team, or project. In terms of access, they can be open, closed, and secret, which should work find smaller enterprises. However, a lack of of integration into more fine-grained permissioning via enterprise roles will limit the platform’s applicability within larger organizations. For example, if you want a group just for director-level employees in your identity management system, you can’t set that up automatically from your directory. You have to manage the users manually.

Looking at the bigger picture

Of course, any technology is more than just a collection of features and use cases. A savvy buyer will want to understand the broader strategic context of their investment. Here the Facebook story is mixed.

Workplace is a modern SaaS application with little to no technical debt, but the all-important ecosystem—including channel partners and third-party add-ons—remains a work in progress. Facebook is undergoing a major learning curve as it feels its way around the enterprise market.

facebook workplace strategic considerations Real Story Group

Workplace boasts a modern infrastructure, but thin ecosystem and potentially impatient owner.

The biggest strategic risk with Workplace is the vendor: Facebook not an enterprise software company. It’s an advertising platform. If Facebook decides to exit the enterprise space, they could do what IBM and Microsoft could never lightly consider: kill the Workplace platform entirely. While you should never make a decision based on FUD, a prudent customer will carefully assess the likelihood and consequences of any vendor exiting the platform.

What works for you?

In its current incarnation, Workplace resembles the early efforts of rivals circa 2010: focused on employee status updates and water-cooler conversations. There’s value in a platform like Workplace if you have not already deployed an ESN. Humans are social creatures and not automatons, even if our workplace digital tools don’t always treat us as such.

Just know that experienced enterprise digital leaders are increasingly moving away from standalone social networking environments that often exhibit declining participation once initial contacts get made. The future is likely to belong to targetted social applications like communities, as well networking and communications services embedded into line-of-business tools. To get there, Facebook will need to move well beyond its current UX comfort zone.

Several rivals can already embed social features into collaborative-editing, file-sharing, innovation, project/task management, communities of practice, intranets, and other workplace environments. It remains to be seen whether Facebook will do the long, hard work of nurturing an ecosystem, developing the channel, and playing nicely with enterprise customers.

To be sure, it’s too early to underestimate Workplace. Perhaps the company’s experience with bots will pay big dividends in the enterprise, though competitors are innovating there as well. Should Facebook deem the Workplace strategic to its long-term growth, it could certainly pour ample resources into platform. If just a tenth of Facebook’s nearly 2 billion members ended up signing on to the Workplace edition, the platform would rival SharePoint in worldwide seats.

Meanwhile, if you’re seeking a Facebook-in-the-enterprise effect you may still find it, but perhaps most successfully with another vendor.