On October 10th, Facebook announced the launch of Workplace by Facebook.
What is Workplace by Facebook?
No, this isn’t your worst nightmare. No one is going to force you to use your Facebook account for work. Many of us do not want our home and office worlds to collide. The Workplace social network is entirely separate from Facebook. It is also ad free.
To elevator pitch it, Workplace is a private instance of Facebook for an enterprise company. This allows workers to share information, chat, and collaborate using the familiar Facebook interface without putting any information up on the public Facebook network.
It seems like it’s a company-wide instance of Facebook with a few enterprise considerations like analytics and single sign-on. In other words, this is Facebook slightly tweaked for business. This is not a new product from the ground up. The Facebook team was using a private instance of Facebook to replace email for their internal team communications for many years. Workplace was designed to allow other companies to do so as well. In other words, I don’t think Facebook particularly tried to study and replicate the existing enterprise messaging/UC market. I think they started with Facebook and put a business suit on it.
As most of you probably know, Facebook has a somewhat different workflow from competitive business communications solutions. With Workplace having essentially the same workflow as Facebook, it is somewhat unique in the business space. If I had to compare it to other business solutions I would say it has a bit more in common with what are known as persistent team messaging solutions like Slack, Hipchat, Spark, and others. However, it could be used in place of a traditional UC solution to some extent as well.
Facebook enters the market with a huge advantage, an existing user base of about 1.7 billion people. Although Workplace is a completely separate product, it has a similar workflow and nearly the same look and feel as standard Facebook (the color choices are slightly more reserved). That means most of Workplace’s potential users are pre-trained on the platform, as one in four people on the planet have used Facebook. The previous/beta iteration of Workplace (called Facebook at Work), was in use at over 1,000 companies, some of which host tens of thousands of users. Facebook claims to have a 90% adoption rate among these customers, which incredibly impressive and easily attributable to the familiarity of the interface.
Aside from its inherent familiarity, Workplace has a several strong features, including its implementation of Facebook Live. Just like the commercial version, Facebook Live allows any user to stream live video (recorded for later availability) to a selected group. With Workplace one could use this to broadcast messages company-wide.
Workplace also offers “multicompany groups” which would allow users at different companies to work together on the platform. This is basically the equivalent of the federation dynamic of UC solutions.
While Workplace offers a strong suite of communications and collaboration tools, including your “news feed” of all relevant events, messaging, chatting, file sharing, search, and even video chat, it does have some weaknesses. First, it appears to only support person to person video calls. Team video meetings are an important, and growing, element of today’s project workflows and must be supported. Second, it appears to lack any sort of interoperability to existing communication tools. If an enterprise organization just spent $5 million on traditional video systems for its meeting rooms, it will not be interested in an app that can not call those systems. Even if they are Facebook fans, it is a deal breaker.
In addition to video interop, it appears to lack any sort of telephony bridging. If it wants to compete in the UC world, it needs to be able to make calls with traditional phones. It also seems to lack any sort of guest account or connection. This will not be your main communications tool if you can’t use it to message or call external partners or customers. It also means it can’t be used as a project management tool for projects including any external people. I understand that this is designed to be an internal team messaging tool, but the market seems to be favoring more open systems or at least stronger guest account support.
I’m also not sure if I think the Facebook communications workflow is ideal for today’s working teams. I’m sure, due to the familiarity with the interface, they can make do with it. However, the project-based workflow of Slack, Spark, and similar solutions has really taken the productivity focused world by storm. In Workplace, you can create project based groups, but it does not support the same kind of rooms or channels that you see in a typical persistent team messaging solution. It’s as if Workplace is trying to be a persistent team messaging solution and a UC solution at the same time, but missing a few elements of both realms.
Another potential weakness is a lack of integrated apps, or support for potential integrators. While they have announced a pending integration with Box, many team messaging solutions offer an impressive library of integrated apps. Today’s working teams use a wide range of productivity apps. If a messaging solution like Workplace wants to be our “homebase” for business it needs to pull in our apps of choice.
Finally, it may suffer from a somewhat negative perception in the workplace. While many people love Facebook, it is seen as the opposite of productivity. It is the ultimate distraction from work. While the angel on one shoulder is telling us to get our work done, Facebook is on the other shoulder telling us to scroll down the newsfeed for just 5 more minutes. If that isn’t bad enough, studies have shown Facebook to be depressing for some people. All your friends post pictures of their best moments. This gives the impression that everyone is living fantastic lives with constant trips to Italy, workplace promotions, weddings, births, and wonderful life events. Your life (in comparison to your friend’s best moments) seems unsatisfying by comparison. It’s bad enough we do this to ourselves at home, do we want a similar interface making us sad by association at the office?
Similarly, it may be psychologically beneficial to have a different interface for work and personal communications. Your brain may learn to associate the work interface with a state of alertness and focus while associating the personal interface with a state of relaxation. Again, some of us don’t like to mix our home and work worlds.
It is hard to say how successful Workplace could be. The enterprise communications space space is tricky. You can’t always muscle your way to dominance. Even the mighty Microsoft took several iterations and many years before they started to get some respect in the space with the later versions of Lync. But if Facebook wants it badly enough, it may get a decent share of the market.
One key thing to keep in mind. Existing messaging providers need their services to be profitable, and growing, to keep investors happy. Facebook, as always, is more interested in harvesting usage data than profiting directly from their platform users. Keep in mind, Facebook takes in about $25 billion in annual ad revenue. The entire enterprise messaging market is expected to hit $1.9 billion in 2019. If you do the math, this means that even if Facebook took half of the business messaging market, it would only be about 3% of Facebook’s total revenue.
There are significant costs involved in operating and maintaining an enterprise-ready multimedia messaging solution. With this in mind, enterprises are ready to pay a premium for a quality business-ready service. However, the world leading consumer social network company is suddenly offering a potentially top tier enterprise-ready service at under half the cost of the existing market leaders. Facebook has unlimited budget, is not hindered by a need to hit any sort of short term profit numbers, and is hungry to grow a Workplace user base. That should make existing UC and persistent team messaging providers nervous.