Facebook has launched a test version of a business networking app called “Facebook at Work,” which is designed to let businesses create private networks for employees and have them mimic the look and feel of the world’s largest social network.
The app offers messaging, event and group communication functions similar to those of the regular Facebook. The similarities likely will make it easier for workers to learn to use the service, since many people already are familiar with how Facebook works.
The mobile version launched in January 2105 but is only available to a limited number of participating companies. Individuals can’t download and use it on their own, at least not until their company establishes a Facebook at Work account and offers it to them.
It’s unclear how many companies are participating in the pilot or what criteria Facebook is using in deciding which employers can test the service.
Asked if the new office networking service was mainly designed for companies with more than 100 employees, a Facebook spokesperson said via email, “We are just getting started with a few partners and we’ll continue to add partners as we move forward. At this time, we can’t share any additional info.”
As the service starts to roll out, companies or their employees can apply to use Facebook at Work through a special application page the network has set up.
Features of Facebook At Work
The app allows employees to create work-related Facebook profiles which they can keep separate from their personal Facebook accounts.
They can also connect with co-workers in the same way that people currently connect with friends and family in personal Facebook accounts.
The business service also enables employees to create groups that work similar to those on the regular Facebook, where people can collaborate by posting text, photos, videos, and links. Also like the regular network, the new at-work service works on smart phones (iPhones and Android) and on the Web via regular computers.
Workers get a customized news feed that displays information posted by their company along with updates from colleagues and business connections they’ve made in their workplace.
It will be interesting to watch how well Facebook’s algorithms manage these custom workplace news feeds and whether they evolve in ways similar to personal news feeds. Many users find it frustrating not to have much control over what they see on the social network, since details of Facebook’s algorithms are mostly secret.
Businesses may want more control of what’s shown on their company networks– or at least greater transparency about how it all works.
Privacy: Creating Corporate Boundaries
Privacy also is likely to be a concern in the workplace, as it is on the social network. Facebook’s office service, though, is not designed to be as open as the personal network; it’s more like a private company intranet.
Asked what privacy levels the business service will offer, a company spokesperson said that “Facebook at Work was created completely for use within a company,” meaning that employee information will be kept confidential and separate from personal Facebook accounts.
“When people post on Facebook with their work account, it’s only visible to other people from their company,” the spokesperson said.
The mobile version of Facebook at Work is visible in the iTunes store, though only authorized users can actually access the service.
Business Social Networking On the Rise
Facebook is hardly alone in trying to provide private networking services to businesses. Many other companies also are vying to create the dominant social networking platform for the workplace, much like Microsoft Office became the go-to app for writing documents and tracking numbers in companies decades ago.
Already, Microsoft has a toehold in the still-emerging “enterprise” social networking business with a product called Yammer. Other workplace networking products include Convo, Socialtext, Socialcast (owned by VMWare), Tibbr (from Tibco); and Chatter (owned by Salesforce.) Still other rival tools include workplace messaging apps like Slack and Hipchat.
Will Companies Have to Pay?
Facebook has yet to disclose its business model for the office network — whether and how much companies will have to pay, for example, or whether ads will be shown to subsidize the service. At least during the trial period, no ads are being shown, the company said in an email.
“Right now we’re looking forward to getting feedback from companies about their experience using Facebook at Work, we’re not thinking about monetization plans,” a spokesperson said. “It’s in line with how we typically launch products: focus on growth first; monetize later.”