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Facebook @workplace reinvents the wheel

Facebook has developed and released a new tool called @workplace. The idea is that people will be able to use Facebook-lookalike collaboration functions, getting rid of a lot of redundant email traffic, making it more difficult to play office politics as everything is shared and allowing people to search old conversations.

In principle it should allow for a better-informed, more open organisation as well as offering an incoming generation, which is convinced email is the medium of older people, an “in” into the corporate world. If it takes off then email for business could become a largely obsolete technology within years.

The sharing ethos is a positive idea, which is why so many others have tried offering it. Yammer, acquired a few years ago by Microsoft, is one. Convo, Slack, Podio are independently owned and work as standalone apps.

Then there are those mini-workgroups offered by larger businesses, like LinkedIn, which offers closed groups that seem basically similar. Oh, and of course there’s the other competition: Facebook. Facebook has offered closed groups for a while.

Is @workplace necessary?

Experienced Facebook users will be well aware of this. There are in fact three levels of group (maybe more, or variants on them) in Facebook. First there’s the open group, in which anyone can join and participate. There is the closed group, in which someone applies to join and then a moderator ushers them in.

Any Facebook member can find either of those types of group by searching Facebook, although they may then find themselves unable to join if one of the moderators doesn’t want them in. The third category, however, is the “closed secret” group. A group sets itself up and selects this option, then not only is the group protected from unwanted members, it is not visible to anyone searching.

Set such a group up for some colleagues and presumably you have Facebook functionality for your private group and it’s change-of-server-proof, it’s all in the cloud and has the technical solidity of Facebook behind it. So what’s the point of @workplace?

Question of marketing

The Facebook environment isn’t everything, and there will be differences between @workplace and the standard Facebook deal. It’s early yet but a wish list might include:

  • In the small electronic print, at the moment Facebook grabs the rights to anything uploaded to its servers. This is not going to be acceptable to someone using it for their business’ intellectual property, so that’s going to have to change.
  • Facebook is going to charge for the new service, say early reports. This is a good thing as it gives the business community some sort of comeback if it goes wrong. At the moment, the customer can have their money back but that isn’t worth a great deal when the service isn’t paid for. In a paid situation the buyer can insist on service level agreements.
  • Related point: a few years ago a number of event companies relied on an area of LinkedIn, unsurprisingly called LinkedIn Events. This wasn’t a paid-for service and LinkedIn eventually shut it down because it couldn’t see a way it was going to make any cash out of it. The users accused LinkedIn of sabotaging their businesses but they had based their planning on something someone else was providing for nothing. They had no particular right to it and no recourse when it was taken away. In the same way, Facebook could take closed secret groups away anytime it wanted to. It might not be wise but it’s possible. A business or government body would need more certainty of a continuing service.

All of these are potential differentiators and could be added to the fact that the employee won’t actually be in the very distracting Facebook environment when they are using the service. Marketing these distinctions and making them clear to the prospective customer is going to be a vital part of the process. Explaining why it’s better than email is also going to be an issue, but since younger people have already jettisoned it socially it could happen in a business context as well.

New business market

Ultimately, logic says the new venture should succeed. Yes, there are alternatives already doing the same job but they are flawed. For example a few years ago I was involved with a small workgroup. All were members of LinkedIn and Facebook but wanted somewhere private to chat online. I suggested Yammer, Convo or Slack and the response was: “Not something else to join…” – we ended up in a closed private Facebook group, taking the risk that Facebook could shut it down but probably wouldn’t.

Going to where the customer already feels comfortable is often a good idea, and if they’re used to Facebook they’ll welcome the business version. However, logic doesn’t always carry weight. Google, which already owns so much Internet real estate, failed in its first attempt at collaborative technology, Google Wave, its first draft of a social network was Buzz which died fairly quickly and Google+ remains useful as part of a Google profile and for SEO but was never the Facebook contender the company intended.

Facebook isn’t Google but the examples illustrate that sheer size and a powerful brand is no guarantee of success whatever the logic suggests. Facebook has no profile as a business service; its primary tasks will be in selling itself to that market as a credible force.

At that point, and if it succeeds at scale, email is a goner.