Could Facebook dominate new company intranets in 2017?

Alison Boothby interrogates Nick Crawford, an independent enterprise social, IC and collaboration expert who has been working with Danone on their implementation of Workplace.

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Since the launch earlier this month of Workplace by Facebook, there has been plenty of chatter about it and it seems that opinion is firmly divided on whether it is a flash in the pan or a force to be reckoned with in the enterprise software space. Keen to find out more about its potential impact on the ESN market, Alison Boothby spoke to Nick Crawford, an independent enterprise social, internal communications and collaboration expert who has been working with Danone on their implementation of Workplace.

“Since 2008 I’ve been consulting in this area and I’m passionate about the massive opportunities that people-centric technologies like Workplace by Facebook, Jive, Yammer, Slack, IBM Connections, and Salesforce Chatter bring. All these tools are capable of helping businesses unlock their potential to be the agile, connected workforces today’s businesses need. It’s just that some make it more pleasurable than others,” Nick explained.

Perhaps the easiest way to take a closer look at the big new contender in this already crowded field, is to undertake a SWOT analysis of sorts, and this is the shape the conversation with Nick took.

Strengths

There is no doubt that Facebook’s ubiquity and consumer familiarity is a huge bonus. With 1.65 billion users on their consumer sites, the familiar interface is, without a doubt, a big plus. The strong mobile experience for both the Workplace app and Work Chat app (think Facebook app and Messenger app) makes this as appealing to the remote worker as it is to the office based knowledge worker which can only help build and sustain adoption levels. What this means in practice is that organisations have little problem recruiting internal ‘champions’ to get on board and start using it. Facebook’s strategy to go big at the outset is in direct contrast to Google who launched their Apps for Business targeting SMEs first and growing from there. Interesting too is that the product was conceived and launched in London rather than the US – perhaps helpful to put a little distance between the consumer and the business side of Facebook? – and large European organisations feature among its impressive list of clients. Latest reports suggest that over 1000 organisations globally are already using Workplace after a year of beta testing with huge corporates among the test sites including Danone, Starbucks, RBS and Oxfam. In terms of reach, the top five countries using the service are the UK, France, Norway, India and the US.

Great adoption:

Nick told us: “I have seen sustainable adoption rates unheard of with other platforms. We are used to companies struggling to get adoption and build engagement with their chosen conversation platforms but we had well over 80% at launch and crucially the figure was still more than 80% after the first few months.” (It’s worth noting that the average engagement level on Yammer is around the 20% mark by comparison, although higher figures are achieved on well managed implementations.) The fact there is minimal training required, and it is therefore light on internal resource requirements, adds to the adoption appeal.

It’s fair to say Facebook have the resources and expertise to develop a robust and complete package, and wisely have not rushed to launch their product. Working closely with big names to get it right over an extended beta phase before rolling it out has been sensible. “This is the ultimate consumerised IT!” he says.

Commercially aggressive pricing:
When it comes to the commercials, they are pretty aggressive. Free for not-for-profits and educational organisations (what’s not to love about that?), and with a free three month trial for everyone else, there is little reason not to try it on financial grounds. After the free trial the pricing remains extremely attractive on an active user basis and varies between $1 and $3 depending on the number of users. Some have expressed concern that there is not a freemium version, but with prices per user significantly lower than other providers and without being denied any of its features (Slack charges $6.67 and Salesforce Chatter is $15 per user per month for example) it is the cheapest on the market and its cost is unlikely to be a barrier to adoption.

Familiar features:

In terms of features, its familiarity proves a bonus once again. The ease of creating groups to include users both within and outside an organisation is another way Workplace may gain traction. Newsfeeds get quickly cluttered and noisy (think Yammer and Slack) and the power of groups that map to common use cases such as project groups, teams, social groups, announcement groups for internal comms etc, combined with trademark Facebook algorithms that help surface the information that is most relevant to each user will be very welcome. The search facility is strong too and supported with great help resources. On the face of it, Workplace is a great ‘out of the box’ enterprise social software.

Weaknesses

So, there’s lots to love about it. But there are two sides to every story and the launch of Workplace has not been without its army of haters. The negative comments broadly sit in four areas: its lack of structure; ability to work well with other business applications; concerns over data governance and security, and analytics. Nick Crawford has a view: “Certainly some of these comments are justified as Workplace (for now, at least) is not integrating with a wider productivity suite. I’m looking forward to seeing what the OneDrive/O365 integration could look like, but arguably the simplicity of Workplace is also a strength, and people are very capable of sharing hyperlinks.

“On the question of data governance and security it is really important that people understand that this is a completely separate platform to Facebook. This is enterprise software, with a different (licence based) business model. Data is therefore owned by Workplace customers, and all the security is in place that you would expect from an enterprise grade software vendor.

“In terms of structure, there is not the level of architecture that you find with Jive for example. Workplace works mainly around groups. But again, this simplicity combined with great search, tags and algorithms get around this and keeps the platform simple whilst delivering and recommending content effectively.

“Single platforms typically offer fairly generic analytics out of the box and Workplace is no exception here. To get more granular reporting there is a bit of data work to do but the good news is that activity data exports are easy to get and very straightforward to work with and you can pretty much determine your own reports based on what you want to know.”

Opportunities

“For many years, I’ve heard people summarising their Jive or Yammer initiatives as being, ‘ a bit like Facebook but for work.’ Now there is exactly that and surely it’s an easy sell, particularly as it is competitively priced. While some see Facebook as late to the game this, I think, is a positive. Many many organisations with existing ESNs have low adoption levels and live with a degree of compromise. Whether it’s the clunky technology, the lack of clear use cases, a lack of ownership, a poor user interface, limited resources to support and train – I could go on – all these have paved the way for a better, more user-friendly software to come to market and walk all over them with something simple to use, familiar and welcome.”

Community management resource and understaffed internal comms teams are all too often left trying to create, manage and nurture ESN communities. Workplace reduces this workload through its familiar interface requiring relatively little training (1 in 4 of the global population has some familiarity with Facebook) and its clever algorithms that help to keep content relevant and, consequently, interest levels high. These factors, combined with a zero financial risk to try it out, may well prove enough of an inducement for organisations to try Workplace and reenergise their employees around a new ESN rather than struggle on with the miserable status quo.

Threats

With Facebook being a marketing machine there has certainly been some cynicism over their latest move. Nick again: “I’ve come across many fears and concerns over data ownership and usage and I think the repositioning from Facebook at Work to launching as Workplace – and launched from London rather than the US – goes some way to allay these fears. In my mind it is inconceivable that the likes of RBS, Danone, Oxfam, Telenor and the FT would have adopted Workplace had they had any concerns over data governance and security.”

The Facebook association is a double edged sword: people love it or hate it but the facts are emerging that Workplace is making waves in this crowded and competitive market, and with its mobile-first attitude it is well placed to offer a genuine collaborative communication solution to the large number of mobile workers with limited access to traditional workplace systems. It’s certainly a potentially lucrative gap in this market.

And of course there’s Microsoft. With Yammer being rolled in free with O365 it may be hard to convince IT buyers that they need to pay for an additional tool but there are plenty of other reasons to consider Workplace as an alternative. Over time Workplace is expected to develop and evolve into a broader digital workspace that will support an organisation’s productivity and that means the likes of Microsoft are in their sights.

Prediction

Nick summarises his experience with Workplace so far: “Having worked with all the leading enterprise social vendors over the past decade it’s been important to remain technology agnostic, but I’ve been genuinely impressed with Workplace during my time advising on its implementation at Danone. I’ve seen leaders have more confidence in using it as a result of the familiar interface and leadership buy in and active engagement with social software is one of the keys to better adoption and engagement. I’ve been delighted with the high levels of sustainable adoption beyond the launch period. In my view there’s a great opportunity in the market for a user-friendly, perhaps simpler, alternative.”

“Facebook may prove to become the fastest growing enterprise software vendor in the world and if I were Microsoft, I might be just a little bit twitchy. Watch this space!”