In Twitter's most recent earnings call, CEO Dick Costolo and CFO Anthony Noto talked up the massive potential that lies in the platform's wider audience - people who are not logged in but who view tweets. I can't help but think a similar motivation is behind the announcement of Facebook's latest project, tentatively titled 'Facebook @ Work'. With so many people logging onto Facebook while at work anyway, why not find a way to monetize them? That, along with LinkedIn's continued growth and the lack of a truly dominant enterprise collaboration platform has lead to Facebook running a pilot program with 'less than a dozen' companies looking to develop Facebook's new offering. Though little official info has been released, the announcement has certainly sparked debate, with many quick to highlight why it won't, why it can't, why it'll never work. But will it?
What is Facebook @ Work?
For all the reports thus far, Facebook has done little more than confirm a version of Facebook for the workplace is in development. A version of this has been operating within Facebook HQ for years, with all the internal communications of Facebook's 8,000+ workers being conducted via the network. This is how they know it can work, and has formed the base model of what they're working on.
One significant advantage Facebook will no doubt be seeking to capitalise on is familiarity. Everybody already uses Facebook, everyone's familiar with the processes and functions. If they're able to translate that functionality to professional life, there would be significant advantages, including a reduction in training time and smoother interactions between businesses using the platform. With millennials set to form the majority of the workforce by next year, this is likely to form a key pillar of Facebook's offering, and could put it a step ahead of established platforms like Yammer and Chatter, but then, of course, there is the question of privacy, and what Facebook will do with the data that filters through its algorithms.
The Privacy Issue
While Facebook isn't the only platform to suffer privacy slip-ups in the past, it's the key target in the social media privacy debate. Because it's Facebook, it has the most users by far and the most access to personal information, data that it has, at times, used for less than ethical purposes. That reputation is the biggest hill the network needs to climb to get Facebook @ Work accepted on a large scale - if people are already concerned that someone might find out about their personal affiliations and interests from their personal Facebook account, that concern is compounded ten times over when it comes to dealing with private business documentation. Would you want to share your employee records and financial data via Messenger? No doubt Facebook is well aware of this and will formulate a system with robust security controls, but the question of privacy will remain the big one, and the further question of how Facebook might monetize such a platform will also need to be addressed.
Will Facebook @ Work, Work?
Seeing Facebook try to challenge in a related market they've not yet dominated is nothing new. They tried SlingShot when their acquisition of Snapchat fell through. They tried Paper earlier this year and it never really took off. They acquired WhatsApp with a view to accessing more users, though so far they've allowed the company to continue operating autonomously, no doubt learning from past disruption (an aspect which may prove very relevant in this case). Seeing Facebook extending themselves to another segment is pretty much par for the course - if they see a market they believe they can service better, they'll have a shot at it. If it pays off, it could be massive, but if it doesn't, it's not a significant loss. The one aspect that raises the stakes in this move is data - gaining access to internal business interactions would provide Facebook with a whole new stream of information, a whole new range of ways to monetize and capitalise on the wealth of data they have available. Imagine all the transactions they could access, all the movements they could see, all traceable, reportable and available to the highest bidder - minus the relevant company names, but dividable by sector. That element is motivation enough for Facebook to do all they can to make it work, and of course, it's within the realm of possibility they could do so.
The critics are speaking out, the obstacles are stacked in Facebook's path. But will it work? I wouldn't bet against it just yet.