Saturday, 8 December 2007

Do users want Facebook as their "intranet"?

Despite Facebook's recent problems with its Beacon social advertising system, it hasn't stopped the blogosphere from continuing to talk about how we can use Facebook for business. Previously Read/WriteWeb looked at the top Facebook applications for business users but the current excitement is around the possibility of using Facebook as an intranet, with Bill Ives reporting how one global 800 employee has already made the move:

"Serena is really replacing its existing intranet with Facebook as a front end linked to a low-cost content management system[*] behind the firewall."

In the light of this example, Andrew McAfee asks "what are the good reasons for continuing to invest in and forge ahead with 1.0 Intranets" and he challenges people to put forward arguments from the enterprise perspective for why not.

Firstly, this is an interesting idea because clearly by moving their existing intranet to Facebook, Serena's intranet it is no longer an intranet or even an extranet (as far as I can tell) - it is something different. Perhaps we should call it a "stratanet", since it is a private entity living in the larger shared space of the Facebook network (just like a block of units)? At a business and technology level, there is no doubt that operating a stratanet introduces a number of potential problems and risks, but nothing that is unsurpassable if Facebook (+ Microsoft) and the business community decided to fix them.

However, I think this is the wrong question - what we should be asking is, do users really want their employers to use Facebook as their intranet?

Lets put this question in the perspective of how people are using Facebook: I was recently a little critical of Charlene Li's double life in Facebook, where she maintains two persona's, a professional and a personal identity because:

"That Facebook account is there for the day when my personal friends finally make it on to Facebook (most are not there today). I post personal photos of my family, recipes -- thing that my professional network of "friends" would find pretty odd."

Certainly, there is much human behaviour that would be found "pretty odd" or unacceptable in the workplace - for example, how would both the act and publicity behind relationship breakups fit on a traditional intranet?

The other issue is that even on a professional level there are things you might want to keep private within your trusted Facebook network, for example as this Guardian piece points out about Facebook's role in recruitment:

"But don't get carried away. Facebook still has its dangers. "I know of people who have been fired because their boss saw profile updates suggesting that they were actively looking for work," says Morrall. Which may prove a good enough reason not to fire up your browser at work - or not if your boss befriends you, at any rate."

The other issue related to this is who own's our online relationships? If an employer uses Facebook as an offical intranet, then is it possible that somewhere down the line when an employee moves on to a new job that the employer will opt to keep those relationships, or even force you to break some of them?

In fact, I'm a little worried that there are only two possible outcomes I can see if companies start using Facebook as their intranet:

  1. People will have to maintain multiple personalities in order to separate their personal and professional lives; or
  2. Working people will stop using Facebook for personal social networking.

In either event this will ultimately devalue Facebook as a business social networking tool.

It is of course possible that Facebook could introduce systems that could more effectively ring-fence personal and business networks - i.e. your boss can only see business-related wall posts. But, is this sterile business networking environment going to end up adding any value? And again, what effort will this require on the part of the user to manage?

While we might not think about it as we are linking up with people at a professional level, a friendship on Facebook requires a great deal trust and maturity as we take the risk of putting our personal lives on display to each other, and this must be a voluntary decision. So, in response to McAfee's question I would suggest that the question of using Facebook as an intranet has nothing to do with technology, rather its about the impact on the relationship between the employee, the employer and the employee's personal and professional social network. In that context I think we have a long way to go before employees (and employers) will really want to use Facebook at an intranet.


  1. julz_hk3:39 pm

    This was recently discussed in and re-cycled in slashdot : something like 'why your creepy ex-work-colleague will kill facebook'.

    The consensus was : linked-in for professional links, and facebook for pals.

    Isn't facebook planning to spin off corporate facebooks for this specific intranet purpose?

  2. I think a Facebook interface for an enterprise intranet is a more realistic solution for businesses than going onto Facebook proper.

    An enterprise could use a Facebook interface to establish an employee's corporate digital identity plus allowing links, communities, and bookmarks to be seen and shared.

    The other advantage is that I believe individuals would be more inclined to keep their digital identity up-to-date with a Facebook interface than, say, a staff directory, because they relate a Facebook identity as a projection of themselves.



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