For ‘Facebook at Work’ to work, it will need to prove it’s worthy of our trust

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It’s not hard to see that Facebook’s (reported) “Facebook at Work” product could bring something unique and useful to the enterprise space. But regardless of what’s in the product, Facebook may not be able to offer trust.

The social network has so far limited itself to use in people’s personal lives and has stored away petabytes of photos of drunks and people making duck-faces. Of course, it’s also stored away lots of information on demographics, preferences, favorite discussion topics, group likes, etc.

Facebook has said that its business platform would be separate and distinct from the personal platform we all know. It’ll also offer a “groups” feature and messaging.

Many businesses — like health care, for example — could benefit from organizing data in a database structure that looks like the social graph. Businesses may also be attracted to the newsfeed algorithms that Facebook has developed to put the most relevant data in front of the user.

But unless Facebook intends to sell licenses for its enterprise product, you have to wonder what its motivations are for launching such a product.

Facebook’s whole business is organized around servicing its advertiser partners. How will these advertisers be served by a new Facebook enterprise collaboration tool? If we know Facebook, it will likely keep all that behind the curtain. Would it really try to serve ads via the platform to people while they’re working?

While Facebook gets points for data center mastery and for having never suffered any major breaches, it has also been perceived as a company that plays it fast and loose with user data. It has, in the past, taken the tactic of claiming certain data elements as “public” (that is, usable for ad targeting), then asking forgiveness later — but never really reversing its original move.

If it’s unclear who really owns the information we give to our personal Facebook pages, that question will become ten times as important when business-critical data is being thrown onto the network. Given Facebook’s history and its focus on advertisers, will businesses really feel comfortable entrusting their data to the social networking giant?

“The problem isn’t the actual mechanics of the program, which are simple,” says David Lavenda of the Microsoft productivity app company Harmon.ie. “It’s the context – people won’t want to interact with colleagues using FB.  Remember FB’s attempt to add email a few years ago — same idea.”

Facebook will need a very compelling “trust” story to gain a beachhead in the enterprise.

Perhaps more seriously, enterprises of any size want to buy a full stack of services on one platform. Microsoft offers a full menu of cloud-based services that include everything from messaging to cloud storage to email to voice service. Facebook won’t be able to offer a full stack coming out of the gate.

But Craig Walker, whose company makes the enterprise voice communication platform Switch, says Facebook might be able to build out a full suite of enterprise communication and collaboration services, in time. He points out that Google started as a purely consumer-facing service but built a full suite of products for businesses. Google now goes head to head with Microsoft to win enterprise accounts.

“It makes a ton of sense,” Walker says. “There’s a trend where products that were initially built for consumers are now coming to the enterprise.”

Walker says, however, the Facebook will have to work on building trust in the enterprise. “That will be the biggest challenge for them; I don’t know if enterprises will feel good about using it.” Walker explains that enterprise IT people are very concerned about where data is being stored and how long the data will be stored there.

He points out that the hot enterprise messaging platform de jour, Slack, hasn’t faced hard questions on trust. “Slack doesn’t necessarily have any trust built up with enterprises —  but it also doesn’t have any experience with violating trust. [Facebook] have a little more checkered history on that.”

The best thing Facebook could do about its trust issue is offer enterprises a product that does things the competition simply can’t do.

That’s exactly how Facebook has dealt with privacy issues on the consumer side. It’s simply made itself the only game in town. You either trust it or you pick up your toys and go home.

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