Got a Hammer? (Why Facebook is the wrong tool for workplace collaboration)

The old saw suggests that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  We’re seeing a lot of that in the social software space.

Apparently, now that every corporate executive has a kid on Facebook, more and more companies in the Web2.0, social software space feel the need to answer “but does it have Facebook-like capability?” with “yes.”

The thing is, people are still really unclear on which tasks Facebook is well suited for, and which are better handled by different tools.

The latest entry in this sweepstakes is WorkBook: A Secure Corporate Overlay for Facebook

Worklight offers several scenarios which illustrate why they think it would be handy to have Facebook capability in a corporate secured environment.  Let’s look at these:

Francesca interacts securely with colleagues at remote offices, taking advantage of Facebook’s social networking tools (e.g. send birthday greetings, share your status, send requests, etc.)
Um, ok. Let’s take these one at a time:

  • Send birthday greetings — Birthday greetings sent to a Facebook page will only be received if the person checks their Facebook page.  It’s still customary in most cultures to send such greetings to a person where they are.  And while college students may spend a lot of time on Facebook, working people are likely doing their work, and probably more reachable via phone or email.
  • Share your status – to see someone’s status, it’s necessary to check their Facebook page.  IM clients are MUCH more convenient for this purpose.  With one glance, I can look at my MSN messenger window and see that my boss is on the phone, my colleague is heads-down pumping out a project report, and the sales guy is out on a call.
  • Send requests – usually, people need a way to store and organize the requests they receive.  Email allows people to file requests atomically.  Project discussion rooms allow the posting of requests in the space where the project is being tracked, and allow everyone else on the project to see who is asking whom for what.  But requests sent to a Facebook page are not manipulable there. They will likely have to be copied somewhere else for tracking. Who needs that?

Marisa, a civil engineer based in London, uses Facebook/WorkBook to find corporate colleagues in Asia and North America who have already solved a structural challenge she has just been assigned.

  • This is a job for an expert locator.  While Facebook offers detailed profiling, and presumably Workbook adds to the mix by adding some corporate-related fields, it’s not at all clear how one makes a collection of profiles into an expert locator without developing some shared taxonomy.  Where in your facebook page are you going to mention the list of structural challenges you’ve solved?  How is someone going to find that in a search?

Joe, a field rep in Omaha, posts a link to an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal, so that his peers in other regions can use the information in sales presentations.

  • If this is a resource for sharing with a group of folks, wouldn’t it make more sense to share that link in a full featured resource library? Say, one which is organized by topic?  How are people going to know this resource exists? I’m more likely to subscribe to the “sales related articles” folder if I want that sort of information than I am to Joe’s page.

Rajiv, an Accounts Receivables manager, shares an unpaid invoice record with the appropriate sales manager.

  • Where? On Rajiv’s page? On the sales manager’s page? Wouldn’t this be better handled in a space dedicated to stuff about the client?

Deborah changes her work-related to status to “working on next year’s budget”

  • I won’t know this, though, unless I check her page. If she updates her message on IM though, it’ll be displayed in a nice little window which I keep open on my desktop at all times.

Corporate management announces a recent large deal to all employees and posts a new HR policy to European employees.

  • Where? In an all-hands group and an HR Group?  How will people know that new information is on these pages?  Through a blizzard of email notifications? If so, why not just send out the text in an email and be done with it?

The thing is, Facebook and similar applications presume that people and their properties are the center of attention.  This is quite true in the social world – we make our friends and maintain our friendships based on who they are and what they are thinking about and what they are interested in.

In the work world, personal relationships do matter a great deal. Knowing something about a person’s personal life and sharing those personal bonds builds trust.  Sharing professional experiences builds regard.  But being effective at work requires putting THE WORK at the center of focus, and making relationships around getting the work done.   I don’t want to have to check individual pages for each of my team members to know how the XYZ project is progressing. I want to go to a space where all the XYZ stuff is being discussed, where documents relating to XYZ are being worked on and stored  I want that space to be flexible. I want to be able to tell at a glance what I’ve already read there and what is new.

I use a wide range of tools to get my work done each day.  I appreciate the need to bring together a range of functionality under a single interface.  I’m excited by the approaches people are coming up with to try to do this.  But I’m darned sure that Facebook is not going to be the Swiss army knife we’re all dreaming of. It’s just not sufficiently work-centered!