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Is Facebook at Work an Enterprise Social Network?

by Phillip Rhodes

Posted on Wednesday January 14, 2015 at 08:12PM in Technology

According to numerous media reports, Facebook have just (soft) launched their new business oriented "Facebook at Work" application. Given Facebook's ubiquity in the consumer social network space, the Facebook@Work announcement was met with great fanfare, with most observers suggesting that the new offering is aimed at competing with products like Yammer, Hipchat, Slack, Salesforce Chatter and others of that ilk. This raises a number of interesting questions, at least some of which we can't fully answer yet, as Facebook@Work is still in a "closed" beta at the moment. But we can take a look at some of the issues around this new product, and its implications for the business oriented social network space.

A few important questions stand out to us, including the topics already raised by some media pundits, like "can you trust Facebook with your data?" and "how will Facebook monetize this?" These are valid concerns, and I'm sure they will be addressed in time. But right now, I'd like to start by asking perhaps the most pertinent question of all:

"Is Facebook at Work really an Enterprise Social Network?"

At first blush this may seem like a ridiculous question - you may think "Well, Facebook is a social network, and if it's aimed at business then of course it's an Enterprise Social Network." But this is a superficial and possibly inaccurate analysis. I think we can safely say that Facebook@Work is definitively a business social network, but whether or not it's an enterprise social network is a different question altogether.

To explore this in more detail, let's talk about what constitutes an "enterprise" or what qualifies as enterprise software. You could argue that any business is an "enterprise" by some definitions, but in terms of the technology industry, "enterprise" has more specific connotations. In the tech software industry vernacular, "enterprise" generally refers to companies that are large or complex enough to have very specific demands on their software systems, and "enterprise software" is software which is designed and built specifically to serve the needs of those firms.

Enterprise software typically has to meet specific requirements in terms of reliability, interoperability, extensibility, and the other "ilities" as people often call them. When a complex firm embeds business logic, which constitutes some part of their competitive advantage, into a software system, the system has to be tailored to the exact specifications of that customer, or it provides no real advantage at all. Likewise, software that does not meet minimum thresholds for uptime, response time, ability to integrate with other enterprise systems, etc., is often not suited for enterprise use. Examples of required integration points may include Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, Sales Force Automation (SFA) systems, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platforms, Business Process Management (BPM) products, etc.

Given that, what can we say about Facebook@Work? Well, details are somewhat lacking at the moment, but what has been reported to date suggests that Facebook@Work lacks any integration capabilities, including even the standard Facebook developer API. And there is certainly nothing to suggest any purpose built integration points for connecting to CRM, SFA, ERP, or BPM systems. It also appears unlikely that Facebook@Work will support any kind of customization to speak of. It seems that this will be strictly a hosted offering, run by Facebook themselves, and not a product where customers will have access to the source code, with the ability to run a modified version. In terms of reliability, however, Facebook@Work should do well, assuming it inherits the same support staff and procedures that the consumer Facebook is backed by. When you look at it, Facebook is very reliable in general, given the massive amount of traffic the site serves.

Based on what we know so far, I'd hesitate to call Facebook@Work an "enterprise" product. I think it will serve well as a replacement for Hipchat, Slack, Yammer and similar tools in the SMB space.. Companies up to 250 employees or thereabouts, with limited needs to customize or integrate their software, will possibly find Facebook@Work very useful.

On the other hand, we believe that firms much larger than about 250 employees - and certainly those with more than 500 employees - will have needs that will not be served by Facebook@Work. This is, of course, based only on the information available today.

For firms that need a social platform which was purpose built for enterprise scenarios, and features API support for, FOAF, BPM integration, business events (SOA/ESB integration), and which is completely customizable, we suggest taking a look at our Open Source Enterprise Social Network offering, Quoddy. In addition to strong API support and a business friendly Apache License, Quoddy includes support for serving as a cornerstone of a Enterprise Knowledge Network by including support for Semantic Web technologies and pre-built integration with Apache Stanbol for semantic concept extraction and content enhancement.

At the end of the day, Facebook@Work is an exciting development, and we believe it will serve the needs of many - but not all - business customers. Luckily there are a large number of choices in the enterprise software space, with solutions available to fit all types of firms. Whether a firm adopts Facebook@Work, Yammer, Quoddy, Slack, or "other" we firmly believe that Enterprise Social Software is going to serve as an important channel for business collaboration and knowledge transfer for the foreseeable future.

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