Is Facebook in the Enterprise an Oxymoron?
By Tony Byrne at 2007-12-10 18:02:00 |
The dramatic rise of Facebook among professionals has called the question on "Enterprise 2.0" long before many people were ready or able to confront it. Some enterprises block Facebook.com on their networks. Others have embraced Facebook as their Intranet. Most others remain ignorant of the phenomenon, but probably not for long. Facebook is more than a website though. It's a byproduct of a broader phenomenon. Enterprises should embrace the concepts behind it, but not fall head over heels for any platform that isn't authentically embraced by rank-and-file employees.
What's all the fuss about? Much hay has been made about companies converting some or all of their Intranets over to Facebook -- software vendor Serena, plus talk about Sony, American TV network ABC, and doubtless others. Of course, these are the types of companies that
- tend to employ younger people (albeit chew through them faster)
- will adopt newer content technologies earlier
- usually value effective real-time collaboration and networking over access to legacy systems
- likely under-invested in internal IT in any case
But technology and media firms are also bell-weathers, and so we should pay close attention to this phenomenon.
Facebook as your Portal?
Software vendors are certainly paying attention. Most enterprises remain wary of Facebook since it lives on the public web. Could an ersatz version from a traditional software supplier be brought in-house? It's not just Google that's trying to build Facebook-for-the-Enterprise. Microsoft, BEA, IBM, and a raft of smaller players have the same ambition. Look for very noisy platform roll-outs in 2008.
At CMS Watch we've been experimenting with Facebook as a collaboration platform internally and with external partners, and we like it. There are some definite limitations to Facebook as a portal. The inconsistent behavior and security profiles of different Facebook applications will be familiar to any portal developer struggling with third-party portlets or Web Parts. Facebook applications seem to revolve principally around people rather than groups, which can be inconvenient for professional collaboration (where typically micro-applications are applied selectively to workspaces). Facebook doesn't have real document management -- although arguably you wouldn't want it seated there anyway -- and Alfresco and others have developed hooks into Facebook from their repositories.
Elusive Search for Enterprise 2.0
In any case, the bigger issue -- as with all things "Enterprise 2.0" -- is cultural. Facebook has many things going for it: it's hip, it acknowledges contemporary fuzziness between personal and professional, and it simplifies application-building. But most importantly, I think, Facebook gives individuals power to participate in multiple heterogeneous networks and, significantly, participants set variable and fluid levels of intimacy with their contacts in a way that they typically cannot within, say, your standard enterprise intranet portal.
But when does Facebook-behind-the-firewall stop being Facebook? I think the minute a central authority gets behind it -- and instinctively mandates some available MOBIG (Microsoft/Oracle/BEA/IBM/Google) software because it happened to be familiar or free -- is the minute the system will lose its appeal to rank-and-file employees.
If you want to recreate Facebook.com in safer, more domestic confines, then you need to let your employees build and shape it. They need to own it if you want to achieve genuine, viral adoption, and it probably needs to feel subversive, or at least "cool." And usually, "cool" is not made -- it just happens.
Balancing Enablement and Control
This seems paradoxical, because -- if half of enterprise information management is about individual enablement -- then surely the other half is about respecting the employer's needs for proper information retention, records management, discoverability, and efficient storage. Of course, that dimension of enterprise control has been overemphasized in the era of Enron and Sarbanes-Oxley, and companies who expect knowledge workers (among others) to be creative and adaptive should not be surprised when they "escape" to Facebook or other platforms to get collaborative work done.
To be sure, we've criticized SharePoint for its viral qualities. But with MOSS, we see more of an abdication by IT departments, who say in effect, "if the business wants file sharing, they can just install SharePoint wherever they want." Even if you assume that MOSS can give you a Facebook-like experience -- and I don't -- the problem with SharePoint is that there is no native way to manage multiple instances of it.
So what should IT do? I suggest offering (or just allowing) a set of collaboration alternatives. Then step back, keep lifecycle management as unobtrusive as possible, and see what takes off. This may mean allowing multiple collaboration solutions -- including hosted solutions -- to compete internally. May the best one win. I'm not suggesting this will be easy; in fact, it may take hard work to retrofit suitable retention and security services onto a newfangled collaboration package that was not explicitly designed for enterprise-wide deployment -- but became popular across your enterprise nonetheless.
[Governance guru (and medallist consultant) Graham Oakes suggests that IT should do more: that IT should actually lead the effort to find the right solutions, and arbitrate the discussion of where the boundaries lie between core enterprise information and stuff that can live out at the edges or even beyond the enterprise network.]
It's Not Your Facebook
And when does Facebook.com itself stop being Facebook? I've heard pundits at various conferences extolling firms to exploit Facebook to reach millions of potential new customers. Sounds great...except people join Facebook because they don't want to hear from your company. Facebook participants are escaping traditional marketing to a more personally controllable environment. The minute your firm (or mine) starts promoting itself aggressively on Facebook is when a large core of the audience leaves, and it becomes just another professional networking venue like LinkedIn and its many competitors -- still valuable, but no one would confuse it with a corporate network.
To be fair, most companies looking seriously to promote themselves on Facebook will likely try a sophisticated approach that takes advantage of the platform's extraordinary interpersonal lattices. They'll pretend they're not marketing, but in reality will try to leverage personal networks for corporate gain. I'm skeptical, but who knows.
What You Should Do
Let's recognize that these are early days for social computing and collaboration. And we live in fickle times. Facebook could fall as quickly as it rose, and be replaced by one or more other hang-outs.
What should you do? Start by institutionalizing an attitude that says, "how can we help our employees be more effective?" Specifically, "how can we support them in the way they really want to work (as opposed to the way we think they want to work)?" Enterprises that balance employee-driven technology decisions with basic information hygiene behind the scenes will succeed the most in creating a true Facebook-in-the-Enterprise.