Facebook At Work Will Quickly Change Enterprise Social

It may not yet be generally available, but Facebook at Work is a quickly evolving solution that will change how enterprises think about and conduct social interactions. It will also dramatically change, if not eliminate, the single-person role of Community Manager.
Carrie Basham Young, an experienced and respected social business strategist, published a series of blog posts on Facebook at Work last week. Her main thesis across these posts was that Facebook is playing a long game in which the line between social interaction in people’s personal lives and at work becomes blurred or disappears altogether. Facebook is betting that it can change enterprise social to more closely resemble the way that people interact outside of work, on Facebook.
Young made many other astute observations in the posts, including,

  • Facebook controls the message with respect to its product and the social networking industry in mainstream media
  • Adoption (logging in for the first time) does not equal engagement (ongoing, purposeful use)
  • Facebook at Work is “incredibly easy” to use and may nearly eliminate the need for user training
  • Facebook at Work’s extreme end-user focus may cause problems for enterprises, and IT staff at big companies will have a negative view of Facebook at Work until it incorporates enterprise-grade identity management, security and information lifecycle management functionality
  • Facebook has the power to change the entire conversation, user expectations and their behavior without input from currently active community managers

Changing Nature of Work and Organizations

The present (and future) trend in the workplace is toward fewer managers in less hierarchical organizational structures. However, eliminating roles that command others’ work does not equate with getting rid of those who guide and coordinate work. The need for people who can design, facilitate and monitor people interactions within business networks will only increase as authority, responsibility and accountability are decentralized across the employee base of an organization.
If Young’s assessment of the irreplaceable contributions of community managers is correct, then Facebook’s intention to minimize or eliminate them may be a fatal mistake. Instead, Facebook at Work should give all employees access to the tools that Young cites as necessary for successful community management. By doing so, Facebook would accelerate the existing trend of democratizing authority and distributing work ownership. Everyone would be responsible for contributing to the management of communities in which they are members, and stewardship of them would shift contextually.
This vision is not unprecedented. Over the last two decades, Knowledge Management (KM) has moved away from being a top-down activity started and executed by an individual situated fairly high in a company’s organizational chart. Instead, the notion of Personal KM has gained favor, making all employees responsible for creating, capturing, sharing and using knowledge within their company.
It is possible that day-to-day community management will move in the same direction and become a distributed responsibility and activity. Young clearly acknowledged this when she wrote,

“Facebook will maintain a pure focus on viral adoption, resulting in an industry-wide slow shift away from the concept of managed communities and toward the concept of ad-hoc, self-driven collaboration as a new normal employee behavior”

I disagree with Young’s interpretation of Facebook’s goal for Facebook at Work though. I think Facebook seeks to de-emphasize or eliminate community managers, but not community management. It appears that Facebook at Work has been designed for distributed, bottom-up community coordination, rather than top-down, imposed management. (I sincerely hope that Facebook at Work does not intend to have communities ruled by algorithms that decide which topics and interactions are given preference in an employee’s activity stream.) While this will be unappealing to existing community managers, Facebook’s vision for more self-governed collaboration is consistent with the larger trends that are distributing and democratizing work coordination in increasingly flat, networked organizational structures.

Enterprise Social Will Change Sooner Rather Than Later

Young is right that Facebook at Work will upset the status quo in enterprise social and community management, but I think her timeline is too long. This change is likely to happen in 3 years or less, rather than the 5-10 years she predicts.
It will be faster because Facebook can learn from other vendors in adjacent enterprise software market segments, most notably Box and Dropbox in the Enterprise File Sync and Sharing space. Like Facebook, both of those companies began as consumer-oriented services that emphasized user experience over other considerations, including breadth and depth of functionality. Box has since built an offering that meets many of the security, privacy, administration and integration requirements of business customers.
Dropbox has also undertaken that journey, although it did not begin it until well after Box started. That is an advantage in some ways. Dropbox is moving down the learning curve quickly because it has watched Box and learned from its strategic decisions taken and tactical moves made to effect the consumer-to-enterprise shift.
Facebook will do the same, gaining insight from both Box and Dropbox. This will allow Facebook at Work to become enterprise-ready in a fraction of the time that most expect. Watch for Facebook to gradually expand beta access to Facebook at Work over the coming months, then make a version that meets most enterprise requirements generally available by the end of 2016.

Buildings are tools, too, and cultural artifacts, as well

I saw that Yves Behar, the well-known designer, has been working with Herman Miller on something called the fuseproject, and one outcome is the newly announced Public Office. Before you look at the Public Office, it’s helpful to step back, like Behar and his team did, and review what they found out from some primary research into the office environment:

behar slides

People in high-performing companies spend 23% more time collaborating than in average companies. This is no surprise, and lines up with other research into the ways of high performers.

What did stagger me a bit was that people spend so much time searching for a place to work in the office, and that productivity goes up 30% when ‘workers feel they have a place to retreat’.

61% of people spend time working away from their desk on an average day. In fact, as Behar and his group pushed at the premises of the office they determined that the conventional office landscape is based on a deeply non-cooperative foundation. The answer is to reconceive the office so that the barriers to getting things done are minimized or eliminated. So the question is, then: how deep does that reconception have to go? Pretty deep, because it turns out that the shift involved leads to confronting… hierarchy.

behar slides (1)

In the traditional office environment, cooperative work tools — tables, conference rooms, and other  shared space — are pushed to the periphery, while in ‘social desking’ — or public space space models — these tools are integrated into the immediate workscape so that people are not wandering to the end of the earth to sit down and work together.

Screenshot 2014-07-01 10.01.36Screenshot 2014-07-01 10.01.22

And so, Behar designed a modular system of office components that can be configured in innumerable ways.

Screenshot 2014-07-01 10.06.25


And some examples (which are actually anticlimactic). There is a great video showing the flexibility in such a scheme, here.

Screenshot 2014-07-01 10.08.34

Screenshot 2014-07-01 10.11.25


The designers express three beliefs that underlie getting to a breakthrough in how we think of the office, not as a passive backdrop or an impediment to getting things done, but as an active and critical tool for cooperation. I quote them:

  1. Variety in proximity — We believe having a variety of workspaces is not a luxury—it’s essential to productivity and engagement.
  2. Collaborative density — We believe collaboration doesn’t just happen in conference rooms—it happens everywhere.
  3. Evolutionary design — We believe that workplaces are like businesses—they must continually change and adapt if they are to thrive.

The subtle subversion of Behar’s rethinking of the office is the final and most important takeaway. The office environment is a reflection of the values that underlie the company, and high-performing companies will expend the time and money to create a context that fosters cooperation rather than sending a signal about who reports to whom.

Perry Hewitt falls right into her own trap

Perry Hewitt, the Chief Digital Officer at Harvard, recently produced a listicle for HBR, Five Mistakes to Avoid When Managing Digital Teams, and in the article she manages to fall smack dab into one of the mistakes she’s warning us not to make.

The last mistake in her list:

Mistake #5: Underestimating the speed of change. In 2003, blogging was still new in the mainstream, and mistrusted by corporations wedded to large CMS installs. In 2005, it was understood that video would never be a dominant form for readers. In 2007, mobile was mostly a development afterthought. In 2012, people insisted ephemeral content was a fringe use case, before Snapchat’s ascendancy among both preteens and Wall Street bankers. Managers must develop digital teams strong not only at rinse and repeat, but with adaptable skillsets and mindsets. Set the stage for expansive thinking about what’s possible through tactics as varied as shared bookmarking sites, lunch and learns, and guest speakers from different industries. Digital is full of examples of the unthinkable becoming the inevitable — and a default-open approach to new ideas helps your team adapt for these shifts.

Just to pull out the salient point, she says “Digital is full of examples of the unthinkable becoming the inevitable — and a default-open approach to new ideas helps your team adapt for these shifts.”

And in the previous list item, she says this:

Mistake #4: Prizing communications control over collaboration. When many managers entered the workforce, the company dictated the terms of communication. Paper memoranda were the top-down coin of the realm, and feedback upward was limited to select channels like town hall meetings. Woe to those managers who think that world still exists. While hierarchies of all kinds are alive and well — and will be with us always — work-related communications flows have changed dramatically. Ask your digital team the best way to communicate. Successful teams will likely use a flavor of collaboration software, whether that’s an explicit project tool like Apollo or a Google doc structure. Periodically, re-evaluate this decision. Has information sharing moved to instant messaging? To Twitter? Let your team vote with their feet, apart from security essentials. You have a better shot of retaining team knowledge if you’re optimized for the real ways information travels, and aren’t waiting for updates to the company intranet.

So, “While hierarchies of all kinds are alive and well — and will always be with us — work-related communications flows have changed dramatically.” I agree with her idea that managers should let people vote with their feet on what tools to use (and a lot of people aren’t waiting to be told to do so). But what about the possibility that hierarchies are not necessarily going to be with us always? Perhaps she is falling into the trap of underestimating the speed of change in the work revolution.

That may be unthinkable to a Chief Digital Officer who is used to working through a hierarchy, and whose leadership is based on power instead of trust and regard.

She’s so wedded to the cultural foundations of hierarchy that she probably never even considered that hierarchy is not a law of the universe but a social convention, like slavery or the divine right of kings, once central to civilization but no longer. And I bet she won’t invite me — or others — to be a guest speaker to discuss the inevitability of hierarchy’s fall, and the rise of the network.