Creating Facebook for the Enterprise

When we first started to become aware of the potential for the deliberate use of social software inside organisations, public social networks like Facebook were already firmly established. A few entrepreneurial businesses proposed back then that Facebook could in fact replace intranets altogether.

Luckily, in my opinion, this idea never took hold, although there are many examples of shadow intranets being created in public social networking sites like Facebook. Some enterprise software vendors have even turned the momentum of such latent demand into successful freemium sales models, where employees can create staff networks just as easily as they can create a Facebook or LinkedIn group.

Even so, the idea of creating Facebook for the Enterprise remains a strong metaphor for senior management when they first try to articulate the need for a better way for staff to communicate and collaborate. Rightly or wrongly, the reality is that they don’t really want Facebook inside their organisation; but they do want the social software patterns that it embodies. This creates a dangerous cliff edge path to advance up for people trying to champion the use of new technologies inside those organisations. One one hand, a step fall of too much ‘social’ and on the other a rocky cliff face of bad user experience from deploying tools that can not support the right social patterns (e.g. vanilla SharePoint). The path itself is a steep incline, with ROI rocks that will trip you.

To help you navigate this path, I think its important to both build on the Facebook metaphor but also understand how enterprise software differs from public social networks, like Facebook (beyond the obvious issues of security and hosting).

Currently, enterprise social computing platforms (and those designed primarily for workforce collaboration or “Enterprise 2.0”) can be divided into two major broad groups:

  • Activity streams – primarily focused on sharing here and now.
  • “Wiki” suites – built around document and information collaboration.

These groups are an oversimplification, of course, but bear with me (also see the list of technologies we like to work with). A sub-group of profile tools – effectively, internal social networks – also exist, however all activity stream and wiki suite tools (should) offer a rich user profile.

Lets now consider the features of Facebook as tools that could support a social workplace:

  • Facebook provides an activity stream with strong social network capabilities. This supports some aspects of making work observable, but it is usually dependent on the user activity updating that activity stream through status updates or “likes”.
  • The social networking model is also based on a one dimensional network, overlaid with privacy controls that are applied to different friends. These are typically applied inconsistently by users, so if you aren’t a friend of someone on Facebook you might see everything or nothing at all. Facebook is also weak in terms of document and information collaboration, because it was simply not designed with this in mind.
  • However, because of Facebook’s advertising based business model, analytics and insights is one area where Facebook may excel over the majority of the current generation of enterprise social software. But these analytics are focused on maximising eye balls and not productivity, value flows and cohesion – so even Facebook won’t give you that elusive Return on Collaboration (ROC) metric.

There is one final piece of this puzzle we need to consider. How does the concept of Facebook fit within the overall context of being a Social Business?

On one side it is worth considering the potential for bringing staff, partners and customers into a social network together. Consider how your future state internal network will connect with the outside world. On the other, think about how you will connect your new internal system of engagement with existing systems of record (something Facebook is not designed to do).

Facebook might not be the ideal social enterprise platform, but with the right strategic conversations internally it is still a great metaphor to build on.

BTW I realise that the release of Google+ may shift the metaphor to a conversation about creating Google+ for the Enterprise. This is something Google are developing, but it remains to be seen if and when this become the dominant metaphor for senior managers who start to engage with becoming a Social Business. Right now, they are thinking how can I create Facebook for the Enterprise – how will you answer them?