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If CIOs have learned nothing else in the past few years about user behavior, it's that consumer technology has a way of becoming the de facto IT standard in the enterprise. That much was evident in the reaction from CIOs and IT experts to a report this week that Facebook is testing a business version of its social networking software, expected to launch in January. The software would compete against enterprise collaboration tools such as Microsoft's Yammer, Google Drive and LinkedIn.
While enterprise IT professionals voiced concerns regarding Facebook's security and data privacy models, as well as its business model -- would business users be subjected to ads? -- few were surprised that Facebook was testing such a service. No one questioned whether an enterprise version of the world's most popular networking application could gain a foothold in the workplace. Moreover, they said it's unlikely the CIO would be the final arbiter on its uptake.
"Will the CIO actually have a choice? I don't know that, as we progress, the CIO is a gatekeeper anymore. It's already clear that if [users] like a service, they slap down a credit card and they get the service without even going to the general IT organization," said Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto.
That's how Reichental envisions Facebook at Work would take hold. Unlike enterprise collaboration tools like Yammer and Jive, which typically find their way into the workplace through the IT department and are centrally managed, the migration to a Facebook version would be employee-driven, he predicts. "My sense is that Facebook at Work will be more grassroots. People will start using it without permission, and unless the CIO actively blocks it -- which happens, but not that often -- it will grow and blossom."
Pat Smith, CIO at Our Kids of Miami-Dade Monroe Inc., a nonprofit serving at-risk children, said IT does not block the consumer version of Facebook for reasons related to the organization's mission. "A number of staff use it to stay in contact with foster youth, who use it as a primary means of communication," she said.
As for collaboration tools within her organization, Smith said IT experimented with Yammer but ultimately it did not take with staff. "I think Facebook at Work is an interesting idea. Whether or not it will surpass its competitors remains to be seen," she said, noting that she's seeing many college students migrate away from Facebook.
Vast digital footprint a plus
Still, the 1.3 billion users already well acquainted with Facebook's interface are a strong argument for the app's potential clout in the enterprise -- both with employees and for customer relations, said principal analyst Rob Koplowitz, who covers the enterprise collaboration market for Forrester Research. "Facebook certainly has a familiar user experience that people love and could blur lines between employees and customers in a very compelling way. They have the ability to drive enterprises toward new levels of customer activation," Koplowitz said.
One of the big challenges facing companies now is how to bridge their customers' online and offline activities to get the all-important 360-degree perspective and to optimize profits, said Bryan Barringer, an independent enterprise mobility consultant. Companies need to know when, how and why their customers use them, digitally and in the physical world. Facebook's reach into personal offline lives could help "bridge the chasm," said Barringer, who in 2011 led the launch of FedEx's internally built enterprise collaboration platform. "I can guarantee that the conversation about how to do that is occurring at the highest levels of Facebook."
Governance, privacy and security
The big stumbling block for corporations will be Facebook's governance model, or rather lack of one, Barringer said. FedEx built its internal platform on top of SharePoint, giving the delivery services company the infrastructure required to govern the flow of information, he said. "If Facebook doesn't get that," it will be up against strong objections from IT, he said, but added that he predicts the governance model will be there eventually, perhaps by acquiring another enterprise collaboration company. And, he added, CIOs should embrace the application and figure out how to manage and mitigate the risk rather than finding reasons "not to do it."
Niel Nickolaisen, chief technology officer at OC Tanner, a Salt Lake City-based human resource consulting company that designs and implements employee recognition programs, agrees that there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered before CIOs see Facebook at Work as an appealing collaboration tool. "Mark me down as a skeptic," he said.
Security designed for the consumer market doesn't cut it in the enterprise, he said. "That being said, there is a role for enterprise social networks, but what will Facebook do that makes it more compelling than the other enterprise tools?" Certainly it won't be the feature that even loyal patrons find most annoying: the barrage of ads that accompany communications with family and friends. "Subjecting me to ads and such," is a huge disincentive to use the application, Nickolaisen said.
Cynthia Nustad, CIO at Health Management Systems, also has concerns about data privacy, security and data use rights policies, in particular the frequency with which Facebook modifies those policies.
"As a company in the healthcare space, our data security and privacy is paramount to our products and services," Nustad said. "Facebook's historical behavior of changing their data use rights frequently would need to remain more static and predictable before I would support a pilot at the enterprise level."
Despite the skepticism, Nickolaisen said his initial opinion could be swayed once there is actually something to see, and Nustad by no means ruled out the benefits of Facebook getting it right. "I'm always in favor of any exciting new method for enabling collaboration in the workplace, especially social media models that help to bridge any generational or cultural divides," she said.
Palo Alto's Reichental argued that Facebook's huge user base could turn out to be the breakthrough that finally gets enterprise collaboration off the ground. "Jive, Yammer, Salesforce Chatter have only been marginally successful today," Reichental said. "I think it could be a turning point which actually makes social collaboration and the social enterprise finally work."