Facebook’s new app allows companies to set up private social networks

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Yammer, SocialCast, Podio, Chatter, Slack … they’re all tools for internal collaboration that share at least one thing in common: When somebody asks to explain them, it’s easiest to say, “It’s Facebook for the enterprise.”

If Facebook has its way, Facebook will become Facebook for the enterprise. That’s the goal of Facebook at Work, the app that’s now available for download.

Getting the app (or desktop version) doesn’t mean you can use it. For now, Facebook has opened its enterprise service to a handful of companies. That hasn’t stopped speculation on Facebook’s potential to grab market share from companies dedicated to internal networking (or, for that matter, from LinkedIn).

The concept is simple. If you have a Facebook at Work account, you’ll be able to access it from your public Facebook profile, but nothing you do on Work will be visible on your regular profile. Instead, your interactions will appear only to your colleagues who also have Work accounts.

Facebook is especially excited about the potential for its recently-introduced Groups feature to replace email lists on the job. Groups lets you create a community for anything: your favorite TV show, a college reunion, or a volunteer activity. At work, Facebook figures it’ll be easy to set up groups for people in the same department, project teams, classifieds, and a host of other functions. With Groups, you can share just about anything, from text and links to photos.

Once your company can set itself up on Facebook at Work, your supervisor will create a dedicated login and employees can link to it with their regular accounts. Facebook’s advantage in a marketplace already flooded with competitors is familiarity. It’s not like Facebook; it is Facebook, and with its 1.4 billion users, odds are most of the people in your organization are already familiar and comfortable with it.

If Facebook at Work faces any challenges, it’s the low level of trust it has established, particularly with security-conscious executives. Facebook swears it won’t collect any data from its Work tool, but you have to believe what the company says to buy into that. Writing for the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman said, “The weightiest problem will concern the implications of handing over the stewardship of company data to a mega-corporation founded wholly on exploiting user data for commercial gain.” As for its promise to collect no data on corporate users, he added, “it has a deservedly terrible reputation to overcome in this regard.”

Burkeman also worries about the linkage between personal and corporate accounts. “Adding a Facebook at Work account more than doubles the potential for confusion; it squares it,” he wrote. “How long before someone gets themselves fired—or, worse, outed—as a result of not knowing which network they were using?”

Another consideration is the inability to install the software locally. Unlike some other enterprise collaboration tools, everything must run through Facebook’s servers. While that’s also true of Microsoft-owned Yammer, Salesforce’s Chatter, and several other services, many companies opt for more cumbersome alternatives in order to retain complete control.

So far, there’s no word on what Facebook at Work will cost, though there’s some speculation it will remain free as a means of attracting new users. Facebook’s growth is, after all, slowing down. There’s also plenty of room for new features. For example, Facebook at Work currently lets you share documents, but does not allow for in-app editing, which could be added sometime down the road.

My guess is that many organizations will reject the idea of Facebook at Work, but plenty will embrace it simply because it can kick-start collaboration that has been so hard to get off the ground with Facebook-like tools. Given the McKinsey Global Institute’s estimate that collaboration tools can lead to a 25 percent productivity improvement (resulting mostly from reduced time to get answers to questions and solutions to problems), organizations that have been hesitant to adopt new tools may well welcome the ability to use an existing resource to address the productivity issue.

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