The longevity of Workplace is in Facebook's roadmap

2016-10-18

There was no missing the official launch of Workplace by Facebook (originally known as Facebook at Work), which clearly caught the attention of both mainstream and industry media alike. If you did manage to miss this, most of the highlights can actually be found in Facebook's own announcement.

For those of you that remember when Yammer first appeared, the sense of anticipation in the potential for Workplace feels very similar - but Facebook's considerable brand presence means the level of interest is coming from a much larger and broader base.

Not everyone is positive about it and I have noticed a few of what I would call mis-informed dissenters. Meanwhile, many of the more positive stories have simply focused on the ease of adoption, such as the fact it is mobile-friendly and beta sites have claimed high levels of take up. For example, in Australia nbn reported that in just a few months "90 per cent of employees and contractors are using the platform".

Personally I’m not convinced that these are the real differentiators for Workplace. There is a sizeable part of the working population who use Facebook regularly that gives Workplace an unprecedented head start, but not everyone uses Facebook and those that do may not use it well. Remember, that Yammer also used the fact it worked like Facebook to its advantage and making inroads into Slack and HipChat’s fickle base of core users may not be so easy (could Messenger really support ChatOps?).

Concerns about the actual productivity benefits of Workplace have also been raised, but this is first and foremost a communication platform, with elements of co-ordination. Julien Codorniou, Facebook's director of Workplace, has specifically called out that Workplace is "not yet another productivity application… It's about building connections between people not org-charts".

Finally, Facebook themselves have also recently signed up for Office 365 (minus Yammer, of course). This hopefully points to Facebook focusing on integration with Microsoft Office and I would expect Google too, rather than trying to compete with their basic productivity suites.

Instead look at Facebook’s 10 year roadmap and you can see immediately the areas where they are focusing and there is no doubt these capabilities will filter down into Workplace.

Facebook’s 10-year technology roadmap presented at F8 2016

To get an idea of what this might mean for Workplace, watch the following videos:

Facebook does not have a monopoly on bots and the bots we have right now aren’t that smart, but it does perhaps have the scale to make machine learning and artificial intelligence work in practice.

The demonstration of Social VR at Oculus Connect highlights a number of features relevant to Workplace - from creating a mixed reality 'office' to the ability to integrate video chat into virtual reality.

If you dig into Oculus and Facebook’s approach to social presence it is quite different to that of Microsoft with Hololens and concepts like 'holoportation'.

Unfortunately Facebook appears to have given up on being a platform for the Internet of Things (it is completely missing from the roadmap), but it still has experience in location awareness and will continue to integrate with the physical world. This also means that Workplace has the potential to connect with smart office buildings too.

In the immediate term, it is also worth considering the advantage provided by their aggressively costed, performance-based pricing model where you pay only for active users. This model is not entirely unique (for example, Broadvision’s Clearvale offers the same), but with Facebook’s experience in pay-for-performance online advertising this is a natural place for them to play and could disrupt other vendors across the entire productivity and enterprise social software market. I will not make many friends saying this, but it should make organisations wonder why they are paying for subscriptions that no-one is actually using.

On paper at least, Workplace by Facebook is not such a great platform. It introduces features that have existed in competing enterprise social solutions for many years and lacks the integration offered by its more mature competitors. But as a late entrant and somewhat against the odds, the combination of brand power, a familiar user experience, and a competitive pricing strategy gives them a strong beachhead into the enterprise market. However, it will be the trickle down from Facebook of brand new capabilities that will give Workplace longevity as a digital workplace platform.

Further reading

Interesting analysis by Paul Miller, at the Digital Workplace Group: Workplace by Facebook is rocket fuel for the digital workplace.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia writes: Facebook wants to be in your workplace, but you’ll probably find trolls there to.

For a HR perspective: Facebook Officially Unveils Workplace and Workplace by Facebook: will platform familiarity spell success for business social network?.

What investors think: Will Facebook's Workplace Bury Slack?.

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