Facebook infiltrating the enterprise: the ups and downs

My colleagues at Enterprise Irregulars are not your typical Facebook demographic. Heck, I can't even make the top end 40-49 age group.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

My colleagues at Enterprise Irregulars are not your typical Facebook demographic. Heck, I can't even make the top end 40-49 age group. But that doesn't stop us from arguing whether Facebook (and other forms of social media) are appropriate for enterprise usage and if so, where they fit.

Some of us in enterprise land struggle to understand the enterprise potential and relevance when there are so many other demands on the CIOs time, attention and budget. Technology buyer advocate Vinnie Mirchandani thinks the arguments in favor of Facebook are symptomatic of the kind of hype for which the tech industry is infamous and tries to inject some enterprisey reality into discussions: "If you try to convince me social networking tools are Enterprise 2.0 and will cut my checks, pay my employees, run my supply chain - yes I will say BS." He's right. Facebook isn't going to cut anyone's checks. Neither is any other form of social media as far as I know. While I respect Vinnie's position, the debate is wider and deeper.

On his own blog, Vinnie asks:

Many of my Facebook friends are already on LinkedIn. Most of my LinkedIn contacts, I am sure, just want me as a scalp to add to their list of hundreds. Do we need another channel?

If so, I will take the channel with "10-4. Rubber Duck." In fact, I may make a duckie my photo on Facebook. Nah, what I have now - a big question mark - is more appropriate. Till this luddite can figure out what to do with yet another social network.

Is this such an unreasonable position to take given all the other social networks that are out there and the kinds of attitude that are prevalent among CXOs? Social networks and especially Facebook can, and I stress can, be a great time waster. In the UK, the Daily Telegraph reports that:

More than two thirds of employers are banning or restricting the use of Facebook and similar sites over fears that staff are wasting time on them when they should be working, a survey found...

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said staff were not allowed to use social networking sites at work.

"Access to some websites is blocked as there is no business need for employees to access them. Facebook is one of those sites," he said.

Facebook can be exhausting. Hardly a day goes by without a new application popping up. Just trying to keep up with it all is a significant undertaking. Fred Wilson, who invested in Twitter is experiencing the pain:

The web is my world. Blogs are my world. Flickr is my world. Twitter is my world. Facebook aggregates all of those features, wraps a social network around it, and provides a turnkey solution. It's better in many ways. But when you make it easy, you get overload.

From a development perspective, folk like Eddie Herrmann, who is paid to dream up stuff for his employer Colgate Palmolive recently said in one of our group discussions:

I still have mixed feelings about facebook. I have already created a couple of hello world apps using their platform, and my initial reaction is yuck. You are limited because you are in the facebook shell and it's not very intuitive. This could be due to my limited use of Facebook itself, but it takes some serious shucking and jiving to get things to show up in all the different little places. You can use an iframe for your main app page, but you have to use FBML (Facebook Markup Language) for everything else.

I think it was brilliant for FB to be the first to open the social network up as a platform, but you can tell that this was an afterthought. IMHO, the game is not over and someone else can still leverage this same concept in a more stable way, especially for business (Salesforce?)

None of this seems a solid recommendation for those of us who are advising CXOs on the use of social networks. In my view, while all these points are understandable, they miss several important points.

Like it or not, social networks are with us. Returning to UK media reports, you only have to check the number of Credit Suisse and Dresdner Kleinwort (two of the banning companies cited) to see there are multiple active groups under those names. Banning might be the short term business answer but it isn't stopping people meeting on Facebook in the company's name. What does this say about perceived reputation or the long term ability to attract and retain the best talent?

I wonder what JP Rangaswami thinks? He was until recently CTO at Dresdner and is a social media advocate. Last week he said:

I remember a time, it must have been the early 1980s, when it was common to ban phones with direct dial facilities. Why? Because people might talk to their friends and family during work time...Banning Facebook is the equivalent of banning coffee shops and water coolers and loos.

Ironic in light of current reports. In a following post, JP discusses the addictive qualities attributed to Facebook. He draws parallels with Bloomberg Professional saying that:

Bloomberg messaging was addictive. But whom was it addictive for? Buy-side firms. Staffed by people who might just have had a disproportionate interest in making money. These guys were not into wasting time, they were pretty much single-dimensional about work and work and oodles of dosh. And more oodles. So why would they go crazy about the “chat” facility?

Because they got Cluetrain, that markets are conversations. They got Doc’s Nigerian pastor, that relationships come first. They got the Middle Eastern souk approach and tied these things together: relationship before conversation before transaction.

I think Facebook is a bit like that. There’s something about it that mirrors the relationship-conversation-transaction structure, and that’s what makes it addictive.

It's also part of what makes Facebook valuable. Ex-SAPper Jeff Nolan was recently invited back to his alma mater to talk about the benefits of social media/networking. In regard to social networks and Facebook, Jeff said:

I’m really liking the social networks because of their inherent ability to spread information virally. Facebook groups are a great way to build a following around something not by tricking someone on clicking a link and providing information about themselves, but because someone says "hey, I actually want to make myself part of this."

There has to be more to make Facebook compelling to business and here Robert Scoble nicely sums up some of the obvious outward facing aspects of Facebook:

  • Facebook is a multilevel marketing platform.
  • Facebook is a great way for me to promote what I’m doing.

The same goes internally. In my view and used appropriately, Facebook becomes the internal social networking portal that allows me to discover and connect with the people I need to get whatever job I have at hand. Command and control diehards might argue that Facebook is un-necessary because HR and project systems should hold all the information I'll ever need to make those connections. Perhaps. But unlikely. If I want to make a connection I'd much rather have information about a person's preferences in books, music and film than the stodgy details of their education and experience. I'd also want to make sure people know enough about me from which to feel comfortable enough to make initial contact. Why? Because as people in work, we connect at a personal level no differently to the way we do so in our private lives. The intellectual comes second. The team building transaction comes third.

What does this mean for enterprise software? One thing is for sure, resistance will continue for a while yet. Backbone transaction systems won't go away but the emphasis will change and in this it is worth considering where some of the pressing problems lay. Identity management is without question an ongoing problem as many of my colleagues acknowledge. But smart guys like Eddie Herrmann and Dan McWeeney, Eddie's Colgate-Palmolive development partner are beavering away to find a solution. In conversation, Eddie says:

While FB provides authentication to your FB app, it can't really be used outside of the FB shell. This is why I don't really consider FB an identity solution in the purest sense. OpenID is superior in this aspect because it's not reliant on any platform. Dan McWeeney and I are actually working on our off hours on an application that uses OpenID and/or Facebook for authentication. FB for when you are using FB, OpenID for everything else. The tricky part so far has been trying to allow people that have already signed up using OpenID to sync their account with their FB ID. OpenID authentication on top of and inside the FB platform...not fun.

The other pressing problem requires assigning people to manage the transition that Facebook implies. Here I see HR taking a pivotal role. They're the gatekeepers of employee data which makes them the natural advocates for social networking. They can learn about brand from enterprise marketers. There's just one piece of the puzzle missing and it's a role that doesn't currently exist - enterprise social scientist. More on that later.

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