by Clint Boulton

Facebook taps its social ranking tech to improve employee satisfaction

Aug 13, 20156 mins
CIOCIO 100Collaboration Software

Facebook is applying some of the algorithms that facilitate connections between its 1.2 billion users to augment employee collaboration and reduce dreaded inbox clutter, underscoring one of many ways the company is tapping the tremendous volumes of data it collects to make business processes more efficient. The software, under development, is designed to help new workers connect with colleagues and work groups within the Facebook social network.

“A focus area for us right now is to achieve the optimal connectivity between employees and the information they need,” says Tim Campos, CIO at Facebook. “People get overloaded and we can see that in employee feedback.”

Employees are just inundated with information, but they also have a fear of missing something that they need to see

Campos discussed the new software in an interview with after delivering a keynote speech about the importance of using data to unlock business value at the CIO 100 event here. At Facebook, the IT staff of 270 has been tasked with finding new ways to mine data to streamline business processes. This includes building custom software to automate sales processes, as well as using sensors to plan anything from conference room usage to tracking vacant spots in its parking lot. But the effort to make internal collaboration more efficient underscores how the team is applying technologies that support its core social graph to its own employees.

Communicating beyond Outlook

Facebook’s 11,000 employees use and Microsoft Outlook as their primary modes of communication, Campos says. But new employees are underserved by data because they don’t belong to many groups and aren’t connected to many coworkers. The company is building software that recommends certain people or groups that employees should consider joining, based on their job type, work group and interests.

The application, for example, may suggest that a new engineer hired to work on performance engineering join a performance engineering group, or connect with employees who work in similar roles. Campos’ team is essentially appropriating technologies from the company’s broader social graph to rank information based on relevance and importance to individuals.

“What we’re trying to do is bring the same concept there [of social relevancy ranking] but introducing enterprise data as opposed to consumer data,” Campos says. “We’re providing ranking and suggestions of things that you’re not connected to. … What are the things that are most important for you look at and what are the things you don’t know about that you might want to?”

Conversely, longer-tenured employees tend to have too many contacts and belong to too many groups, some of which may not be relevant. The application could help such workers make their contacts and groups more manageable by recommending that they reduce unnecessary connections, such as those with which the employees haven’t interacted with in a while. Facebook is also seeking to discourage activity that impinges productivity, such as after-hour interactions. One idea involves a “snooze button” that allows workers to block messages after hours.

Facebook isn’t the first software company to tackle so-called inbox clutter. Microsoft and Google have each introduced software that helps employees prioritize, or de-emphasize messages in their inbox. But Campos said that such relevancy ranking is a core competency Facebook has cultivated in its consumer product for more than a decade. That will ultimately enable Facebook to make messaging and collaboration much more crisp, and less noisy. That’s the idea, anyway. “Employees are just inundated with information, but they also have a fear of missing something that they need to see.”

Collecting, organizing and normalizing the data

Harvesting and analyzing this productivity information requires a hefty infrastructure stack with the capability to churn through hundreds of petabytes of data. Facebook uses a number of external and internal open source software tools to collect, organize and normalize, or weed out inconsistencies from the data. These include the Hadoop analytics software, as well as technologies that Facebook built and released to open source, such as its Hive data warehouse software and Presto real-time analytics tool. Campos says one challenge is figuring out which tools to use; some data must be accessed in real-time, while other data is historical, outlining trends occurring over several months. Presto is designed for rapid analysis, while Hadoop can crunch the trend data.

Such infrastructure forms the bedrock of analyses for other business processes. For example, to help connect employees occupying offices in dozens of regions in 27 countries, the IT team incorporated in each conference room sensors that track trends such as bookings and occupancy rates. In these rooms, employees use 1,300 video conferencing systems to meet “face to face” with colleagues around the world. Campos and his team monitor room occupancy and video conferencing consumption via a software dashboard to see if and where they can improve planning for room availability.

Campos, for example, knows that conference rooms are almost always occupied in New York, while rooms in India are busy in the morning and late afternoon. This sort of information helps Facebook determine whether or not to add more rooms. “The more that we understands these patterns, the better solutions we can provide to help everyone communicate,” he says. For example, he split large conference rooms that were being used by a small number of employees into several small conference rooms.

Facebook’s focus on using data to drive efficiency extends to its headquarters’ parking lots, where each spot is fitted with a sensor that relays information about its occupancy. As motorists drive into the parking lot, they will see green lights over each row directing them toward available parking spots. Rows without occupancies are marked by red lights. “We know exactly how much available parking we have at any given time, when it fills up, and how it’s trending,” he says. This is important because parking comes at a premium; there are only parking spots for 3,600 employees at its Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.

While these projects are unique to Facebook, Campos says it’s crucial for CIOs to find ways to tap data effectively, especially as industries become increasingly disrupted by technology. Data-driven culture starts with the CEO, whom he said is responsible for instituting a culture of data management and analysis. “If an industry is being disrupted by technology and you have an intuitively driven organization, there is a risk that [you] will miss important signals that [you] need to respond to,” Campos says.