Facebook Beta Launches Work Chat Application

Late last week, Facebook quietly made its entry into the work chat (enterprise real-time messaging) arena with the very limited release of its appropriately-named Work Chat application. There was no announcement in the Facebook Newsroom; the app just showed up in the Google Play store and was called out in a TechCrunch article. Work Chat is available for Android devices only now; an iOS version is in development and expected to be available soon.
Work Chat is the corporate equivalent of Facebook Messenger. Those applications appear to have the same user experience and feature set, although TechCrunch noted that Work Chat allows individuals to temporarily turn off their notifications, so as to not be disturbed when on vacation and when other personal activities are prioritized.
Work Chat is intended solely for organizations that are Facebook at Work customers. Anyone can download and install the app, but it will not work without a Facebook at Work login.
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Facebook at Work is still in closed beta, so very few companies and individuals will be able to use Work Chat today.

Is This a Market Disruptor?

While it’s impossible to gauge the actual market impact of Facebook’s Work Chat at this point, we can draw some conclusions about its potential effect. First, it will boost awareness of, and interest in, chat-based, real-time communication tools in organizations of all size. Individuals who use Facebook and its Messenger app in the personal lives will push their IT departments to consider the Facebook at Work and Work Chat combination.
In all likelihood, many organizations will try Work Chat, at least in a pilot implementation. It’s been reported that Facebook at Work will be available in a free version that will likely have a limited feature set and support. If that is true and the same applies to Work Chat, then a company’s cost to try the app is negligible.
Facebook’s land and expand strategy for enterprise sales may indeed work and, if it does, Work Chat would likely be swept along with the tide of Facebook at Work adoption. Facebook has already said that some of the roughly 300 companies in the Facebook at Work trial program have announced their intent to scale its use next year. Heineken has already grown its user base from 40 to 550. Royal Bank of Scotland plans to have 30,000 employees on the platform by the end of Q1 2016 and aims to roll it out to all 100,000 employees before the end of the year.
It is entirely possible that Work Chat will see those kind of adoption numbers as well, resulting in a decent share of the enterprise real-time chat market segment for Facebook. Other vendors of communication and collaboration platforms, suites, and applications should not dismiss the potential impact that Facebook at Work and Work Chat could have on their revenue streams. If Facebook can build an enterprise sales capacity and execute well, they will become a formidable competitor.

Real-time Messaging in the Enterprise: Here We Go Again

There was a good Wired article, published yesterday, that bemoaned the rapidly-growing plethora of communication applications centered around real-time chat. Its author lists consumer-oriented applications to demonstrate the situation:

“I bounce through a folder full of messaging apps. I talk to a few people on Hangouts, a few others on Facebook Messenger, exactly one person on WhatsApp. I Snapchat all those people, too. I use Twitter DMs, GroupMe, HipChat, Skype, even Instagram Direct a couple of times. Livetext, Yahoo’s new app, is fun; I’ve been using that. Oh, and there’s email. And iMessage. And, of course, good ol’ green-bubble text messaging.”

The same problem is beginning to develop within businesses as their employees self-adopt enterprise-first chat tools from startup vendors that have been in-market for a while, including Slack, Hipchat, Wrike, Flowdock and others. Oh, and let’s not forget that many employees use the consumer-grade applications mentioned in the Wired article to conduct business, even if it’s against company policy.
Of course, all of these newer chat tools compete with IT-approved enterprise real-time messaging offerings for employees’ attention and love. IBM Sametime, Microsoft’s Lync and Yammer, and Salesforce Chatter are just a few well-known examples of longer-lived, enterprise-grade messaging applications and services that support real-time exchanges. To further compound the clutter, we are also seeing new chat offerings, from established enterprise collaboration software vendors, that mimic their consumer-oriented cousins. Jive Chime and Microsoft Send are real-time chat apps that have been released in the last four months to support organizations’ increasingly mobile workforces.
There are a few problems created by this overwhelming collection of enterprise real-time messaging options. First, these applications are largely siloed from each other, so employees have to remember in which one a certain conversation occurred or know in which application they have the highest probability of gaining a specific coworker’s attention. Second, some can interoperate with other enterprise applications via RESTful APIs, while others require more costly, time-consuming integration efforts. Third, some messaging applications support information governance initiatives such as records retention and disposal whereas other offerings essentially assume that chats are throw-away conversations that do not need to be archived and managed.
There are so many other issues that they will be better dealt with in another post. But they are bound by one clear fact: we’ve made all of these mistakes with previous generations of enterprise messaging technology.

The BIG Problem: Why?

The biggest problem facing the newest wave of enterprise chat tools is an existential one. It is not clear why they are needed when existing real-time messaging tools satisfy the same use cases. I voiced this in the following mini-tweetstorm on the day that Microsoft Send was announced. (read from the bottom of the graphic to the top)
Larry's Enterprise Chat Tweetstorm
That’s right. You can hold my feet to the fire on that prediction. Enterprise real-time chat is destined to quickly fail as a market segment and technology with significant, positive business impact. Just like the combination of status update and activity stream features in enterprise social software failed to displace email, instant messaging and other, well-established forms of business communication.
Insufficient technology is not the cause of poor communication within organizations. We have had at our disposal more-than-adequate messaging technologies for decades now. The real reason that employees and their organizations continue to communicate poorly is human behavior. People generally don’t communicate unless they have something to gain by doing so. Power, influence, prestige, monetary value, etc.
Well-designed technology can make it easier and more pleasant for people to communicate, but it does very little to influence, much less actually change, their behaviors. So the latest enterprise real-time chat applications may offer improvements in user experience, but they won’t measurably increase communication frequency or effectiveness in most organizations unless their deployment is accompanied by change management efforts that include meaningful incentives to communicate.
I intend to track and chronicle the rise and fall of enterprise real-time chat as part of my research agenda at Gigaom Research. Stay tuned over the coming months as we watch this drama unfold.