Tech Talk: Facebook makes bid for corporate respectability

Was it a ploy to pull slumbering employees out of a post-Christmas haze and boost morale? Or a serious move into the enterprise social network market, to induce greater collabora­tion? Just exactly why did Facebook decide to launch ‘Facebook at Work’ (FB@Work) in the middle of January?

The tool, available as an app for iOS and Android, is being piloted with a few select organisations. A spokesperson told Buying Business Travel nothing specific could be commented upon during the pilot scheme, but the social network giant says it will be separate from users’ personal Facebook accounts, but easily switchable, and that it is “for co-workers to communicate and collaborate in a professional environment on Facebook”.

“Things you share using your work account will only be visible to other people at your company,” it adds.

Cue jokes about accidentally posting pictures from last night’s drunken antics to the CEO, but it is a bold move into the enterprise social network market, and follows the likes of Yammer (which Microsoft purchased for US$1.2 billion in 2012), Slack, Jive, Convo and Socialcast.

As with any technology, user experi­ence is key, and Facebook certainly has familiarity on its side. Should the business travel community take note? For Rob Golledge at Amadeus, having the same interface that people use when catching up with friends and family removes an important barrier to adoption: “These days, people are governed more by results than whether an application was origi­nally designed for business or leisure.”

Paul Richer, senior partner at Genesys, adds that although FB@Work will likely be used for work gossip and socialising, rather than anything directly relating to work matters, it could open up a new channel to travel management com­panies (TMCs). “From a business travel perspective, it might well be interesting for TMCs to create joint FB@Work ac­counts for their clients to chat and liaise with relevant travel consultants. A TMC may have several FB@Work accounts, with individual members of the group being travellers from a particular client.”

Sharing knowledge

Within large organisations, more ‘chat’ with travel buyers may lead to more discussion regarding travel policies, knowledge sharing among staff, or even Airbnb-style accommodation sharing. Kate Fitzpatrick, digital strategist at online marketing specialist E3, says: “A raft of SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] have been using Facebook – in the traditional sense – for work, for quite some time. They have made the most of group and event functionality to create collaborative working groups, and this looks like where FB@Work may be heading.

“For instance, a logistics client we’re currently working with introduced Yammer to a set of remote employees, doing broadly the same roles, but dis­persed across the UK. I think taking this example and applying it to travel is interesting.” She also believes FB@Work could lead to an increase in merging sales of business travel with leisure.

Raj Sachdave, head of auxiliary part­nerships and innovation at Capita Travel and Events, is a bit more circumspect: “Anecdotal feedback is that any reference to the Facebook brand for most corporates would be greeted with a ‘no’, and ‘it’s banned from the office environment’,” he says. However, he concedes that “social environments are a way forward that can complement business travel. Travellers

want to share information on how and where they’re travelling; today’s traveller is one that shares his/her knowledge.”

If the pilot proves successful, no doubt app developers will be queuing up to help create tools for TMCs to interact with a company’s employees. Eddie Bent, managing director at E-Strategy, says: “For multi-location organisations, there’s an opportunity for employees to share knowledge, ideas and tips for the greater benefit of the organisation and its customers. It could lead to employees staying at each other’s proper­ties in different locations.”

Privacy issues

However, data privacy could be the main stumbling block. “Its appeal to a multina­tional could be limited,” notes Fitzpat­rick. “It could be a tough sell to execs who may be sceptical introducing a platform that is historically aligned with out-of-work behaviour. It will mean companies will have to think hard about how they manage these platforms if they want them to remain useful and productive.”

Capita’s Sachdave also has concerns. “As a social platform, Facebook serves its purpose but, despite reassurances, there would be concerns around privacy, data protection and possible overlap between private and work place profiles,” he says.

Amadeus’s Golledge adds: “In the corporate world, data privacy is key. Organisations would have to be certain their employees’ data, including the content of conversations, isn’t in danger of being used by a third party.”

And E-Strategy’s Bent says: “My primary concern is how Facebook’s con­fusing and frequently changing privacy policies would affect the level of which internal documents and messaging, for example, would remain confidential.”

Business travel players may benefit from FB@Work through greater interac­tion, collaboration and potential for sales, and it could be seen a logical progression of the consumerisation of technology in the workplace (think iPhones eating into BlackBerry’s market) – but it looks like it will be the IT and legal departments that have the final say on whether they ‘like’ the initiative.

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